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Space Tracking Not Good Enough

When the Chinese SJ-12 satellite kissed another in orbit and raised alarms across the space community-- was this an anti-satellite test, was this a general demonstration of orbital maneuvering -- the event also raised questions about whether and when the U.S. knew it happened.

All of the news about the event came from the community of amateur orbital watchers and a few professional analysts, not from the military or the intelligence community. So I asked the outgoing head of Air Force Space Command if he was satisfied with the quality of space situational awareness to which he has access. And I asked Gen. Bob Kehler if he knew about the event before the amateurs or they had the jump on his people. On the second question he said he did not know who came first and he seemed -- as usual -- to be offering an honest and simple assessment, not a cagey avoidance of the topic.

But to the more important question -- the quality of space situational awareness -- he said this: "In general terms I am not satisfied with either the timeliness or quality or comprehensiveness of our space situational awareness."

Space Command is hobbled by its long-time reliance on cataloguing space debris and satellites. They spot something, note its position, confirm its orbit again and then log where it was and when it reappeared. This is not, as Kehler noted, anywhere close to real-time information. The other restraints on the Air Force and the intelligence community is that much of the hardware and software used to analyze orbital conjunctions is antiquated. The work stations at JSPOC are being upgraded and they have already improved the training and numbers of the analysts who do this work but much remains to be done.

Because of this and much improved data sharing between foreign entities, commercial satellite companies and the Air Force, Kehler said conjunction analysis on active satellites in orbits is "much better" than it was a year ago. For the longer term, he believes SBSS and other programs should lead to "dramatic improvements in the next couple of years."

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