How DoD confirms a possible satellite breakup

When a Japanese astronomy satellite broke up March 25, operators at the Joint Space Operations Center at Vandenberg Air Force Base were among the first to know.

The JSpOC works as the Air Force’s satellite nerve center, tracking 1,300 active satellites and 23,000 man-made objects in space each day.

As space has become more contested, congested and competitive, the JSpOC has taken on increased importance for tracking satellites and maintaining their safety. A significant satellite collision or breakup can have devastating consequences for the rest of the environment, creating debris that can last generations. At the same time, as the public has become aware of the importance of space, the JSpOC is working to be as transparent as possible about breakups.

With that backdrop, the JSpOC announced March 25 the Hitomi satellite had led to five new pieces of debris. As part of the announcement, the Air Force used its standard lexicon of “breakup.” The word choice appeared to chafe parts of the international space community. But the JSpOC takes careful steps before issuing such a pronouncement.

“The term is ‘breakup’ but it implies events more severe than they are,” said Diana McKissock, who leads the space situational awareness sharing cell at the JSpOC.

Before each public announcement of a “breakup” the Air Force has determined that an event of some kind has created new debris near a satellite. In some cases the satellite is still working and the new debris is nearly superfluous. In other cases, the results are fatal to the satellite.

To date, when the JSpOC Twitter account notes new breakups, it’s re-tweeted on average 40 times more than a typical JSpOC tweet.