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Getting Crowded Up There

 

January 5, 2009—According to a recently released Defense Science Board report on challenges to US military operations, the US military's ability to maintain space situational awareness is "becoming increasingly difficult." Today some 44 nations and numerous commercial enterprises have spacecraft in orbit and the number of spacecraft in orbit is going up with the increasing use of numerous smaller satellites. The DSB report notes, too, that the growing amount of space debris poses an additional challenge, both in the necessity for operational spacecraft to maneuver around it and the need to keep track of it. As the Chinese anti-satellite test in 2007 showed, such an attack would produce a "sharp upward spike" in debris, noted the report. The Air Force-operated Space Surveillance Network must keep track of both spacecraft and debris for the US military to be able to mount an effective response against the right target in the event of an actual attack on US or allied spacecraft. The DSB urges DOD to "immediately initiate a program to upgrade the US Space Surveillance Network," noting that it would be "extremely difficult to maintain accurate space situational awareness if an adversary simultaneously attacked multiple satellites due to the amount of debris that would be created."

Source:
1. DSB report "Challenges to Military Operations in Support of US Interests," released December 2008. Volume I (large file) and Volume II (very large file)
2. Chart based on data from CelesTrak.com.