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Military satellites add to Earth’s orbit, which is already crowded with satellites

Earth’s Orbit Is About to Get More Crowded. Undark, BY SARAH SCOLES, 12.26.2022

The military is launching a fleet of small, interconnected satellites to collect data, track missiles, and aim weapons.

SOMETIME THIS COMING March, a network of 10 small satellites winged with solar panels is scheduled to launch into Earth’s low orbit. Though likely invisible to the naked eye, the satellites will be part of a future herd of hundreds that, according to the Space Development Agency, or SDA, will bolster the United States’ defense capabilities.

The SDA, formed in 2019, is an organization under the United States Space Force, the newly formed military branch that operates and protects American assets in space. And like all good startups, the agency is positioned as a disruptor. It aims to change the way the military acquires and runs its space infrastructure. For instance, the forthcoming satellite network, called the National Defense Space Architecture, will collectively gather and beam information, track missiles, and help aim weapons, among other tasks.

The SDA’s vision both mimics and relies on shifts that started years ago in the commercial sector: groupings of cheap little satellites — often weighing hundreds of pounds, instead of thousands — that together accomplish what fewer big, expensive satellites used to.

Such sets of small satellites are called constellations, and those in low Earth orbit, which circle 1,200 miles or lower above Earth, can send data back and forth quickly. They rely on relatively inexpensive spacecraft that can be replaced and updated regularly. And they are hard to knock out, just like it’s more difficult to shoot down a flock of doves than a large turkey (or sitting duck).

The National Defense Space Architecture’s first spacecraft will launch from Vandenberg Space Force Base, part of the so-called Tranche 0, which will eventually total 28 interlinked satellites. “This tranche is incredibly important as sort of the trailblazer,” said Mike Eppolito, its program director. The launch was originally scheduled for September 2022, then delayed to December because of supply-chain issues, and delayed again until March to fix glitchy power supplies on eight of the satellites.

Now that the military has begun blazing this trail, it will also face the same challenges the commercial sector has recently had to reckon with: crowded orbits, potential collisions, and a sky filled with synthetic electromagnetic signals. Military and intelligence satellites haven’t proliferated at nearly the level of, say, those owned by SpaceX, and astronomers haven’t been paying as much attention to them. But an increased reliance on constellations will result in orbital emissions that can interfere with scientific research, and create an increased potential for collisions.

……………………………………………… Though the Department of Defense had long been interested in the idea of small satellite constellations, it was only when these companies started to link lots of them together — to do the same kinds of jobs that the military had been doing — like taking snapshots of Earth, or providing data connectivity — that the military began to seriously pursue them.

………….. The SDA’s founding vision remains essentially the same. As such, its architecture will consist of multiple layers of satellites, with spacecraft someday in the hundreds. These layers will transport data to share information from different sensors; track missiles; provide an alternative to GPS; and tell weapons where to aim. They will also incorporate data from commercial satellites, said Tournear. The spacecraft being less expensive and more replaceable, the SDA can upgrade them regularly, whereas the older satellites have to wait a decade or more for replacement.

The military can now simply buy that up-to-date technology from companies like Lockheed Martin and York Space Systems……………….

EANWHILE, space-traffic managers and astronomers, already coping with the proliferation of commercial constellations, are figuring out how best to navigate the more-crowded future.

For one thing, the sunlight that reflects off satellites’ surfaces, and the radio waves that satellites often use to transmit data, can show up in telescopes’ sensors back on Earth, marring the signals coming from stars, galaxies, and gases.

According to Jonathan McDowell of the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics, radio and optical astronomers began voicing concerns as far back as the 1980s, but it was only when SpaceX began launching its Starlink satellites that the issue went from annoying to problematic. Since then, astronomers like Meredith Rawls — a research scientist at the University of Washington and a member of a new international group called the Center for the Protection of the Dark and Quiet Sky from Satellite Constellation Interference — have been working to mitigate constellations’ negative effects on science and the sky’s purity. Yet the group doesn’t comment on military satellites and focuses on commercial constellations.  Defense spacecraft, Rawls said, are “a total blindspot” for her.

“It’s taken 40 years to come to the point where it is a real problem,” said McDowell, who publishes an approximately monthly report of all space launches. Constellations, he noted, can become “a serious problem when you’re talking about not hundreds or even thousands of satellites, but tens of thousands.”

……………… he and others do worry about potential collisions of satellites and space debris with the addition of military constellations. “Even a relatively small number of satellites whose orbits are secret, it’s problematic,” said McDowell, because managing space traffic requires knowing where it actually is.

Leolabs will keep track of the SDA’s objects, but the more satellites are in orbit, the more likely they are to crash — into each other or into the many pieces of litter already up there. “We can help you almost guarantee that you won’t get hit by a piece of trackable debris,” said McKnight of Leolabs. “Unfortunately, there are hundreds of thousands of objects that are too small for us or anybody to see. They can still kill you.”

That means it’s important for the SDA to build spacecraft that can recover from small smashups (and to have a plan for bringing down spacecraft that don’t survive, so they don’t create more debris). “I know that SDA understands how to do that,” said McKnight.

But they also have to contend as well with large pieces of existing space trash — spent rocket bodies the size of school buses, left over from American and Russian launches during the Cold War. “These clusters of massive derelict objects have a much greater debris-generating potential than any of these constellations do,” said McKnight. The constellations’ members, after all, can generally thrust away from danger. “These are small, very agile, very aware, and highly controlled and responsible satellites,” he continued.

But any crash creates tons of fragments (metal shards, bolts, paint chips, solar-panel shivs) that whiz around space, making other crashes even more likely, and creating tons more fragments. If two old rocket bodies hit each other, for example, a huge cloud of debris could come barreling at SDA satellites just as easily as they could Starlink’s. “They could affect these constellations drastically,” said McKnight.

……………………. Even if the military’s satellites don’t present problems on the level of commercial ones, the Department of Defense at the same time supports private proliferation. “It may not be a question of ‘Oh, the military are going to have massive constellations,’ but ‘the military are going to be customers of all of these massive constellations,’” said McDowell. The Air Force, for instance, just gave SpaceX a $1.9 million contract to test out one year of Starlink connectivity in Europe and Africa. And in early December, SpaceX announced a new business arm called Starshield, which will focus on providing satellite-constellation capabilities — like communications and Earth observation — to the government, for national security missions………………….



December 31, 2022 - Posted by | technology, USA


  1. Forgot to mention criminal fraud, Elon musks, starshield that the pentagon is giving musk 10s of billions of dollars to build. Why is this always left out?

    Comment by Tamara Shipman | January 1, 2023 | Reply

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