Days before the largest US Space Symposium gathering in Colorado Springs (37th Space Symposium), the Head of Space Force ISR Directorate, Maj. Gen. Leah Lauderback, was announcing plans to enhance space-based surveillance sensors, in order to monitor space threats.
Such focus is in line with an increased activity detected in geostationary orbit (GEO), where most valuable assets are operated for commercial or governmental use. China has demonstrated “tugging capabilities” as well as agile maneuvering of its satellites, well beyond expectations. Ground-based sensors may now prove insufficient to keep track of such a vast quantity of space-based threats.
The U.S have previously launched sets of satellites capable of performing inspection, rendez-vous and proximity operations (RPO). The latest launch in January saw 2 satellites launched in GEO under the GSSAP program (Geosynchronous Space Situational Awareness Program). The two spacecraft carried by an Atlas V-511 variant including a Centaur III upper stage were delivered into GEO orbit. USSF did not disclose the exact mass but we can assume their movement capabilities to be significant to ”better cover the large volume of space in the geosynchronous belt”.
Although space-based SSA is not new, development of the NewSpace industry has enabled a larger access to those vantage points in GEO at a lower cost. As small-satellites or micro-satellites are now being used for commercial GEO missions, so are other applications considered. In November 2021, the Air Force Research Laboratory had announced the selection of BlueCanyon Technology for the development of a micro-satellite Bus program to go beyond GEO for SSA activities with a launch forecasted in 2023.
Infinite Orbits has scheduled 2 demo missions in 2022 and 2023 which are going to demonstrate Space Situational Awareness and RPO capabilities based on a Nanosatellite Bus. Taking the opportunity of shorter lifetime and lower bus costs, such missions could be more common in the coming years. The company has noticed an increased traction among advanced space nations for such surveillance capabilities. The new Headquarters in Toulouse were not selected at random. Toulouse will host NATO’s future space operations training center next to the French Space Force. France declared its aim to deploy small size satellites for space-based SSA during the 2019 announcement of its military space strategy.