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Tracking Crowded Space

The U.S. military and intelligence communities are stepping up efforts to monitor and share information about the increasingly crowded and potentially threatened orbital space.
 
The most recent step came from the ongoing establishment of the Joint Interagency Combined Space Operations Center (JICSpOC) at Schriever AFB, Colo., which will seek to improve processes and procedures for ensuring data fusion among the Department of Defense, IC and other agencies, coalition partners and industry about the 23,000 satellites, rocket bodies and pieces of debris currently circling the Earth.
 
The JICSpOC will work with the Joint Space Operations Center (JSpOC), which currently tracks space conditions from Vandenburg AFB, Calif. That center, which military leaders say has been accomplishing its mission with somewhat outdated equipment and software, is currently undergoing a technology upgrade known as the JSpOC Mission System (JMS).
 
Many aspects of the JICSpOC, as well as its future division of responsibilities with the JSpOC, are still being worked out. The new center is expected to achieve initial capability status in June.
 
Whatever final arrangements are determined, the two actions clearly signal a perceived need to pay more attention to the crowded orbital regions, where a total of 39,000 objects have been launched since mankind entered space in 1957. While many of those objects have since fallen to space, there is still an enormous amount of junk--working satellites or payloads represent only 5 percent of the current total.
The multitude of objects raises the potential for collisions in space, and the JSpOC devotes substantial resources to “conjunction analysis”—predicting when objects will come in potentially dangerous proximity—and informing operators about remedial action. The center also tracks radio interference that could harm communication with vital satellites.
 
The problems of crowded space have only become more prominent with the rapid commercial development of space, as a host of companies plan burgeoning constellations of satellites for communications and Earth monitoring.
 
An even more critical factor, however, is the fact that U.S. military and intelligence functions—as well as growing portions of the international economy—are critically dependent on space for everything from GPS to video up-links. With experts warning that these assets might be targeted by adversaries in some future conflict, there has been a growing realization of the need for both expanded capabilities and for greater data fusion not only within the U.S. government but also with its key allies.
 
Experimental Focus
 
Air Force Major General Robert Rego, individual mobilization assistant to the commander and U.S. Strategic Command lead for the JICSpOC, voiced many of these themes in explaining the rationale for the new center: “DoD and the intelligence community recognize a need to work together to address the increasing threats to our nation's entire national security space enterprise, and a need to better integrate our space operations in response to these threats.  The JICSpOC will be the focal point for operational experimentation and tests that will lead to better unity of effort for the diverse space communities.”
 
Comparing the two organizations, Rego explained that the JSpOC is charged with conducting critical day-to-day operations, while also performing the type of experimentation and testing necessary to prepare the U.S. and its allies for future conflicts.  The JICSpOC, meanwhile, “will provide an operational experimentation and test environment to develop the tools, relationships, processes and procedures that will be effective in a contested environment.  As new procedures are developed in the JICSpOC, they will be incorporated into JSpOC processes,” he said.
 
During its first phase, from its launch last October until May 2016, the center has been focusing experimenting with various options to inform the precise makeup and concept of operations for the final JICSpOC organization. 
 
So far, he continued, “Our most significant lesson learned is the need for unity of effort across the national security space enterprise.  To achieve this, our experimentation focuses on identifying the right people from the right agencies to comprise the initial cadre of JICSpOC professionals.”
Procedures for working with the IC and other partners are critical, and Admiral Cecil Haney, commander of U.S. Strategic Command (USSTRATCOM), and Betty Sapp, director of the National Reconnaissance Office, not long ago signed a memo of cooperation on the topic.
 
“NRO, as well as other stakeholder agencies across the national security space enterprise, has been instrumental in helping the JICSpOC achieve a unity of effort concept.  While specific procedures and systems are still under development, one important focus of experimentation will be to formalize these relationships in such a way that allows the JICSpOC to best leverage these capabilities,” Rego said.
“Fusing the operation of our space systems and intelligence capabilities in real time will enhance our ability to track, monitor, analyze and predict irresponsible and dangerous activity in space, and ensure the U.S., its allies and partners remain free to use space for civil, commercial and national security purposes,” he added.
 
Heavenly Catalog
 
The purpose of the JSpOC is to provide a focal point for the operational employment of worldwide joint space forces and enable the commander of USSTRATCOM’s Joint Functional Component Command (JFCC) Space, of which it is a part, to integrate space power into global military operations, according to Captain Nicholas J. Mercurio, director of 14th Air Force/JFCC Space public affairs.
 
The JSpOC maintains the catalog of all Earth-orbiting objects, charts preset positions for orbital flight safety, and predicts objects reentering the Earth’s atmosphere. It tasks the Space Surveillance Network (SSN), a worldwide network of military and civilian space surveillance sensors to observe space objects, collecting about 400,000 observations each day.  
 
“Crews operating on the operations center floor match sensor observations to the orbiting objects, catalog, and update the position and velocity of each one.  These updates comprise the Space Catalog, a comprehensive listing of the numbers, types, and orbits of all monitored objects in space, which is shared at no cost to all registered users at www.space-track.org,” Mercurio explained, adding that it also share space situational awareness (SSA) with more than 60 partner nations, intergovernmental organizations and commercial entities.
 
“As the space domain becomes more contested, degraded and operationally limited, the role of the JSpOC has evolved to meet SSA requirements that now extend beyond simply knowing an object’s ‘address’ in space,” he continued. “To be effective today we must be able to characterize an object’s capabilities, discern its intent, calculate potential vulnerabilities and determine appropriate countermeasures.”
 
But the JSpOC’s legacy systems, such as the Space Defense Operations Center (SPADOC), were designed when the space domain was less congested, contested and competitive. To meet the new challenges, the center is deploying JMS, which will provide a complete, real-time, predictive operating picture of the environment with visualization tools to support rapid decision-making. The headquarters infrastructure will also be extensively refurbished. 
 
“JMS will provide JFCC Space the appropriate data integration and exploitation infrastructure and capabilities to make better use of the tremendous volume of available sensor data, allow improved integration of intelligence data, enable more dynamic and innovative employment of our systems, and provide a more complete, real-time and predictive picture of activity in the space domain,” Mercurio explained. “This enhanced operating picture will help us ensure safety and security in the space environment in the near future.”
 
The JMS version used by the JSpOC since November 2014 fuses data from legacy systems and a wide variety of surveillance data sources to create a common Earth map.  
 
It has received extensive use in JSpOC day-to-day operations and participation in USSTRATCOM exercises, and in initial JICSpOC scenarios.  
 
The next JMS iteration will enable the center to administer and maintain a high-accuracy space catalog of objects orbiting the Earth using inputs and observations from the SSN. 
 

Last modified on Thursday, 12 May 2016 13:59

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  • Issue: 7
  • Volume: 13
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