US to send two new spy satellites into space, says General William Shelton

PUBLISHED : Monday, 24 February, 2014, 4:37am
UPDATED : Monday, 24 February, 2014, 4:37am

The United States plans to launch a pair of satellites to keep tabs on spacecraft from other countries orbiting 35,970 kilometres above the planet, as well as to track space debris.

The previously classified Geosynchronous Space Situational Awareness Programme (GSSAP) would supplement ground-based radars and optical telescopes in tracking thousands of pieces of debris so orbital collisions could be avoided, the head of air force space command, General William Shelton, said.

He called it a "neighbourhood watch programme" that will provide a more detailed perspective on space activities. He said the satellites, scheduled to be launched this year, would also be used to uncover potential threats from other spacecraft.

The two-satellite network will drift around the orbital corridor housing much of the world's communications satellites and other spacecraft.

The air force currently tracks about 23,000 pieces of orbiting debris bigger than about 10cm. These range from old rocket bodies to the remains of an exploded Chinese satellite.

Brian Weeden, technical adviser with the Washington-based Secure World Foundation, said the US military already had a satellite in a better position to monitor space debris.

"I think the [Obama] administration is being more honest when it says that it declassified this programme to try and deter attacks on US satellites," in geostationary, or GEO, orbits located 36,000 kilometres above earth, Weeden said.

The new satellites will also give the US military greater insight into what other countries have in orbit.

The satellites are scheduled for launch aboard an unmanned Delta 4 rocket from Cape Canaveral air force station in Florida during the last quarter of the year. Shelton said two replacement satellites were targeted for launch in 2016.