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Timothy A. Ridout

Timothy A. Ridout

Posted: November 18, 2010 03:36 PM

In September, the United States Air Force launched the first satellite capable of monitoring outer space. Currently, the USAF watches objects in Earth orbit through a ground-based system of radar and optical sensors scattered around the globe. Though this Space Surveillance Network is the best in the world, it is insufficient to ensure the security of the hundreds of satellites that are integral to modern life. When the new Space Based Space Surveillance (SBSS) satellite is operational in about six months, it will be a dramatic improvement.

We all depend on satellites, whether or not we know it. From civilian uses such as TV, Internet, banking, GPS, agriculture, and weather forecasting, to military functions such as guiding munitions, operating Predator drones, gathering intelligence, enforcing arms control agreements, and monitoring missile launches, the value of satellites is incalculable. Unfortunately, as Earth orbit becomes crowded and actors proliferate, security threats increase.

The anarchy and volatility of outer space are reduced only insofar as we know what is happening there -- a concept known as space situational awareness (SSA). Laws and norms protecting against aggression and harmful negligence are essentially worthless if actions cannot be reliably attributed to guilty parties. Without accurate information, punishment is nearly impossible and its deterrent effect is minimal. Imagine trying to arrest a robber based solely on the description provided by a blind person. Imagine further that all would-be robbers knew beforehand that the only likely witness would be blind.

The SBSS satellite gives us eyes. It has a mounted sensor that is capable of pivoting, allowing the camera to focus on different areas of outer space without having to reposition the satellite itself. This enables ground controllers to quickly and frequently shift the area under observation, giving them broad monitoring capabilities without wasting the satellite's valuable fuel. The satellite will be able to track launches, debris, satellites, and other objects without being "encumbered by terrestrial limitations of weather, day-and-night restrictions," said Lt. Col. Robert Erickson, SBSS Space Situational Awareness Squadron commander. "It enables the (Joint Space Operations Center) to collect data when they need it, not when a ground asset may be able to see the target."

Simply put, it will give us more and better information. This greater awareness of outer space activity can be used to enhance the effectiveness of international laws and norms, or to provide a deterrent to nefarious activity through the credible threat of retaliation. Both avenues will likely be pursued by international actors.

Imagine that an American satellite is destroyed by colliding with another object. In debating how to respond, it would be essential to know whether that object was a "space mine" intentionally placed in the path of the satellite's orbit, or if the object was merely a piece of errant debris, perhaps a spent rocket casing left over from an old Apollo mission.

If it could be accurately determined that the object was, in fact, a space mine deployed by a specific country, the United States could publicly denounce the guilty party and seek restitution through appropriate international legal channels, maybe taking the case to the UN Security Council. Alternatively, the United States could retaliate against that party in a way deemed proportionate to the offense committed. Though the latter option is more risky, both would enhance space security in the long run by making known the ever-increasing possibility of being caught and by simultaneously providing assured, predictable punishments for transgressions.

Although the United States has the best space-monitoring capabilities, places like China, Europe, and India will inevitably catch up. As their SSA improves, so will outer space security due to more accurate information and more observing parties.

Mutual monitoring has been highly effective at enforcing arms control agreements and avoiding nuclear exchanges since the Cold War. At the height of U.S.-Soviet tensions, early-warning systems allowed both sides to detect potential missile launches with enough advanced notice to retaliate, thereby eliminating the incentive to strike first, and reconnaissance satellites enabled each country to verify that the other was meeting its arms control obligations.

In general, transparency of capabilities and intent are widely acknowledged to reduce misunderstanding and conflict. Though monitoring outer space presents a greater technical challenge than monitoring Earth, this wisdom still applies.

Thus, making space safe and secure for both satellites and space travel will depend largely on enhancing space situational awareness. Ground-based monitoring will continue to play an important role, but space-based surveillance is the way of the future.