New Air Force satellite to monitor space junk

Posted by Emma Woollacott

The US Air Force will this week launch a satellite designed to monitor the skies for dangerous debris.

The Space-Based Space Surveillance Satellite (SBSS) will launch on Friday from the Vandenberg Air Force base in California, ending up in orbit around 390 miles up.

The $500 million satellite is twice as sensitive and has ten times the capacity of previous space-based sensors.

Boeing, which has developed it along with Ball Aerospace & Technologies Corp, says it has three times the chances of detecting threats, and will do it in half the time.

It uses a swivel-mounted telescope which will transmit information about possible threats to a ground station at the Schriever Air Force Base in Colorado.

"Without having to move the spacecraft, they can track objects very quickly," said Tim Harris, Ball’s director of programs for national defense.

The SBSS can detect objects as small as four inches across. It will also track all satellites in a geosynchronous low Earth orbit.

Millions of pieces of space debris are orbiting the earth, mostly man-made. They include spent rocket stages, fragments of disintegrated satellites and bits of lost equipment.

In February last year, a defunct Russian satellite collided with an Iridium satellite, creating a cloud of thousands of pieces of debris.

Currently, ground-based telescopes monitor around 22,000 pieces of debris, a small fraction of the total, as well as 1,000 active satellites. But these telescopes can only be used on clear nights, and many are underpowered.