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Satellite to launch with air of intrigue about true mission

By Pam Benson, CNN National Security Producer
  • New satellite will detect and track man-made objects in space
  • Of about 21,000 objects in space, most are debris
  • In space, even small pieces of debris can cause serious damage
  • Some suspect satellite will spy on other country's satellites

Washington (CNN) -- Getting around town with your GPS, watching your favorite program on satellite TV, tracking hurricanes in real time, communicating with the warfighter on the battlefield -- any one of those activities could be in jeopardy if a piece of the growing mass of orbital junk traveling through space at supersonic speeds smashes into a satellite.

That's why the Air Force is launching a new satellite Saturday night that officials say will have the capacity to better detect and track the more than 20,000 man-made objects in space, most of which is debris.

The managers of the Space Based Space Surveillance (SBSS) program said the satellite will help make U.S. space assets safer and more secure. SBSS commander Col. J.R. Jordan told reporters that "this satellite is going to revolutionize how we track objects in space by not being constrained by weather, the atmosphere or the time of day."

The heart of the satellite is a camera with an unobstructed view of three quarters of the sky, a valuable wide angle that avoids having to expend the time and fuel to reposition the spacecraft.

Currently, space objects are tracked by ground based systems -- radars and optical telescopes -- which can be blinded by adverse weather conditions, clouds and daylight.

The new satellite has other potential missions. It can provide a closer eye on the satellites and space objects of other nations. The Air Force officials participating in the news briefing would not discuss missions or priorities.

"There are a lot of objects out there that we have lost track on, and there are a lot of objects we think we can observe that we haven't been able to observe previously," Jordan said.

"We're going to improve the actual tracking on a daily basis," he added.

"SBSS will track the relative position of satellites and debris to enable the Joint Space Operations Center to protect the nation's assets in space," a spokesman for the Air Force Space and Missile Center said.

Brian Weeden, a former Air Force officer who worked on space operations, said the new satellite makes it feasible to observe and collect information on objects at much higher altitudes in deep space. The satellite "may very well have imagery capabilities" beyond what has been made public, said Weeden, who now is an analyst for the Secure World Foundation.

"Think Hubble," said Weeden, a reference to the space telescope which provided more detailed images of the universe at greater distances.

John Pike, who follows satellite developments for, is more conspiratorial about the satellite's mission. He maintains one of the key purposes of the new satellite is to learn more about the characteristics of debris fields in order to make satellites more stealth -- n other words, to disguise top secret U.S. satellites as debris. Pike said space junk is a concern, but ground systems are able to keep track of most of the space clutter that could impact key U.S. assets.

Weeden disagreed. He is skeptical of the feasibility of developing stealth technology based on observing debris.

Although Weeden acknowledged there may be some elements in the U.S. intelligence and military who want such research, he believes the physics is too hard. Unlike debris, satellites give off a physical signature -- heat, light and other indicators.

"If a satellite is stealth, how do you know where it is, especially if you should lose contact with it?" Weeden posited.

He said the new tracking satellite does provide a far better ability to detect, track and inspect objects in space. One of the motivations for the tracking satellite, Weeden said, is the fear that another nation might have a dormant anti-satellite device in orbit, waiting to be turned on. Although there is no indication such a device exists, Weeden said the new satellite will give the United States better situational awareness in space.

Michael Krepon, a space expert for the Stimson Center, said the new satellite provides needed additional capacity.

Within the past few years, he said, there have been "three wake up calls to say there is a huge problem," with space clutter.

Thousands of pieces of debris were generated when, in 2007, the Chinese intentionally destroyed one of its own satellites with a ballistic missile. In early 2009, a Russian satellite and a U.S. satellite collided in space, and later that year a Russian intercontinental missile blew up during a test flight.

Krepon pointed out that even a marble sized piece of debris "travels with the energy of a one-ton safe dropped from a five story building. If you get hit with that marble, you're having a really bad day," said Krepon.

The Air Force Space Command's mission is to track and chart the path of anything orbiting the earth that is 10 centimeters -- approximately the size of a baseball -- or larger. Of the approximately 21,000 objects currently being followed, 1,000 are active satellites or other payloads such as the international space station and the shuttle.

The Air Force has spent $858 million on the development and production of the new tracking satellite, which is expected to be operational for five and a half years.