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NRC Urges Collaboration on Orbital Debris Tracking

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This article first appeared in Aerospace Daily & Defense Report.

U.S. Air Force Space Command should adopt a policy of greater transparency and encourage wider participation in the development of the algorithms and computer systems it relies on to track the growing amount of orbital debris and the threat it poses to functioning satellites, according to the National Research Council.

USAF, through U.S. Strategic Command and the Joint Space Operations Center, is primarily responsible for the tracking and warning apparatus.

"The modelers and algorithm developers who support the JSpOC (Joint Space Operations Center) mission have developed an internal community that lacks sufficient two-way interaction with the larger research and user community," says the 82-page report, which was compiled by a 14-member NRC study panel. "Their limited contact with the broader astrodynamics research community has resulted in a lack of knowledge of new algorithms whose implementation could potentially provide significant improvement to the current system."

The study, released Sept. 6 and initiated at the request of the Air Force Space Command in early 2011, recommends wider participation by NASA, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and the Air Force Materiel Command, as well as experts from the aerospace industry and academia in the development and review of tracking algorithms and essential computer systems.

The Air Force Research Laboratory would coordinate the security-sensitive process, which also would make greater use of peer-reviewed publications to disseminate the work, according to the panel.

The study was prompted by the February 2009 collision between the Iridium 33 and Russian Cosmos 2251 commercial and military communications satellites as well as China's January 2007 anti-satellite weapons test. These two incidents greatly increased the debris collision threat to functioning satellites on which developing and developed nations rely for national security, communications, commerce and Earth observations.

The NRC panel's eight recommendations point to two primary limitations on the U.S.'s ability to track a debris population that is forecast to grow to 100,000 from 20,000 objects as already planned U.S. tracking assets come on line. The limitations involve the quantity and quality of sensor-tracking data as well as an understanding of the effects of the Earth's atmosphere on debris and the ability to model the complex influences.

The recommendations stress the need for a greater use of automation in meeting the workload posed by the tracking needs of the U.S. and more than 100 other nations. Personnel recruiting and retention practices should be assessed as well, the panel says.

Credit: NASA

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