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Home News Archive Space-Based Threats: Detection and Reaction

Space-Based Threats: Detection and Reaction

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The final 2009 edition of Aviation Week & Space Technology carried a story about “space situational awareness” (SSA), which the authors asserted may be “one of the few military space arenas where governments believe they can create real cross-border cooperation.”  The article cites recent events that highlight the shared threats facing space assets, such as the February 2009 collision between an Iridium telecom satellite and a defunct Russian satellite—and posits that the omnipresent threat posed by orbiting space debris may spur international cooperation, such as the exchange of radar data and the development of shared access to other data.

The AW&ST article noted that “European nations are emerging as standard bearers” for the shared approach to SSA.  The December 1, 2009 adoption of the Lisbon Treaty will spur the pooling and sharing of resources—including SSA data—within the European Union, according to the article.  The article notes, however, that the EU’s focus has been primarily civil rather than military.  For example, the EU has “initiated a draft code of conduct … that, among other things, would prohibit the militarization of space.”  More recently, the European Defense Agency (EDA) has become more involved, “helping to coordinate different requirements.”  In addition, “military planners are making some headway in increasing the involvement of commercial satellite operators in space traffic control, and the space insurance industry is becoming involved, too.”

The AW&ST article reports that France has started work on an improved version of its Graves radar, which “was specifically designed for space surveillance,” and is already in operational use.  Germany is developing an SSA center at Kalklar Air Base (also home to the EU Rapid Response Air Initiative (RRAI), which (according to the article) should be operational by early 2010.

But it’s not just the Europeans who are interested in a joint approach to SSA.  In mid-November 2009 (according to the article), “U.S. and French experts met to begin discussing how potential conflicts [in data access policy] might be remedied … the talks are later to be broadened to include Germany and other European nations.”

Meanwhile, as readers of this site know, “the U.S. is increasing oversight of space traffic and is ready to begin deploying a[n]orbit[al] tracking-and-detection capability.”  Among other initiatives, the Space-Based Space Surveillance (SBSS) satellite system “will detect and track space objects, such as satellites and orbital debris generating data the Department of Defense will use in support of military operations. NASA may also use the information to calculate orbital debris collision avoidance measures….”

But the foregoing efforts are focused solely on detection of space-based threats.  What about reaction?  Apparently, Russia is thinking about how to defend the Earth from the space-based threats posed by asteroids that stray too close to our orbit.  On December 31, 2009, reports emerged that Russian scientists are planning to meet “in secret” to develop a plan to prevent a potential collision with the asteroid Apophis in 2036.  According to ASDNews.com, although the Russians initially are planning the response “in a closed meeting of our collegium, the science-technical council,” they admit that “a serious plan to prevent such a catastrophe would probably be an international project involving Russian, European, U.S., and Chinese space experts.”

While Russian scientists are focused on taking action to prevent a collision that might result in the loss of “hundreds of thousands” of lives, NASA is more optimistic about the situation.  Although the agency announced that Apophis would pass within 18,000 miles of Earth’s orbit in 2029, “NASA later said that it has ‘all but ruled out’ the chance of the asteroid hitting the Earth in 2036,” according to an article on DigitalTrends.com.  The ASDNews.com article quotes NASA as stating that “"Updated computational techniques and newly available data indicate the probability of an Earth encounter on April 13, 2036, for Apophis has dropped from one-in-45,000 to about four-in-a-million.”

The Russians aren’t taking any chances, though.  The DigitalTrends.com article reports that “The Russian researchers are considering a plan to send a spacecraft to bump the large asteroid to a safer orbit.”  Russian Scientist Anatoly Perminov is quoted as saying, “Calculations show that it’s possible to create a special-purpose spacecraft within the time we have, which would help avoid the collision. The threat of collision can be averted.”  The article notes that alternate methods to change the trajectory of an asteroid include mirrors, light, or paint to change the way the asteroid absorbs heat enough to shift its direction. These methods would take about 20 years to change the path of the asteroid.

Twenty years is barely enough time to get ready for 2036, and it’s already too late to get ready for the 2029 encounter with Apophis.  As John Wayne once said, “Slap some bacon on a biscuit and let’s go--we’re burning daylight.”



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