Lost in Space: Inside the Military’s Efforts to Track Orbiting Debris

November 27th, 2012 | by Rebecca Ruiz

For most people, space debris is the stuff of a Hollywood plot twist, a chance to see Clint Eastwood or Ben Affleck furrow their brows while looking handsome as cowboy astronauts. For the military, however, wayward satellites are a national security concern, and the ability to see deep into the darkness is a strategic necessity.

Although the military lacks a realistic way to round up and dispose of space junk, it has a few tools it can use to watch it. This month, the Department of Defense announced that it plans to relocate two key systems – C-Band radar and the Space Surveillance Telescope (SST) – to Australia for a better view of what’s known as the geosynchronous orbit. This plane is about 22,300 miles above the earth, where satellites orbit at a speed that matches the planet’s rotation.

Since Sputnik was launched in 1957, space has accumulated quite the collection of hazardous detritus; NASA estimates the total at 500,000 pieces. The military’s Space Situational Awareness mission monitors about 22,000 of these items, which, according to U.S. Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency program manager Lt. Col. Travis Blake, include spent rocket stages, active and defunct satellites, and fragments from other spacecraft that are the result of erosion, explosion and collision. All of these pose a risk to spacecraft in orbit like satellites used for peacekeeping and combat missions.

A crash between any of these objects would knock out strategic communications and could trigger a pinball effect, sending flotsam careening into space, each piece of which would immediately become a new threat.

Read more: txchnologist: Lost in Space: Inside the Military’s Efforts to Track Orbiting Debris.

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