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Space chief: Cuts limit tracking orbiting junk

Mar. 25, 2013 - 07:29PM   |  
Cuts to the Air Force's budget will hamper Space Command's ability to track asteroids and space junk.
Cuts to the Air Force's budget will hamper Space Command's ability to track asteroids and space junk. (Melrae Pictures / Space Junk 3D)
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The Air Force’s ability to track asteroids and space junk is severely hampered by budget cuts that have left Space Command with $500 million less than planned this year, which has created a major drop in capability, the top space officer said.

Mandatory budget reductions that took effect March 1, known as sequestration, have interrupted Space Command’s push toward tracking even more space objects than the 23,000 it already monitors. It also has limited the command’s ability to track missiles and work with other space agencies on threats from meteors and asteroids.

“There are resources that are used for missile warning and missile defense that we won’t be able to operate at full capability,” Gen. William L. Shelton said March 19 in testimony to the House Science Committee. “There are things that we use for space surveillance that we won’t be able to operate at full capability.

“We are clearly less capable under sequestration.”

Air Force Space Command monitors activity in Earth orbit, detecting, tracking and identifying human-made objects, but the command’s sensors can also track natural objects, such as asteroids.

For example, Space Command tracked the recent asteroid 2012 DA14 event, a near-miss by a 30-kilometer-wide asteroid this year.

During that event, the Joint Space Operations Center at Vandenberg Air Force Base, Calif., was able to use NASA tracking data to perform collision avoidance and protect satellites, Shelton said.

The Air Force’s sensors focus only on objects in orbit, meaning the service was not aware of the Feb. 15 meteorite that struck the Chelyabinsk region of Russia until it happened.

And budget cuts, along with a lack of investment, could slow progress in expanding the Air Force’s tracking capability to more than a half-million small, human-made objects in Earth orbit that could threaten satellites and other spacecraft, Shelton said.

The command wants to invest about $200 million to $300 million in better sensors that identify space debris and can characterize the activity of more natural and adversarial threats, Shelton said.

Without the additional sensors, “we would not be able to avoid collisions on orbit,” he said. “We would not be able to detect adversary activity on orbit. And our dependence on space, by the way not only for our way of life but also for military operations, is very high. So we would sacrifice that.”

NASA Administrator Charles Bolden Jr. said that currently, U.S. space tracking assets can track only 10 percent of anywhere between 13,000 and 20,000 “city-destroyer” asteroids of 140 kilometers wide or more.

Under pre-sequestration budget plans, American assets would be built up to the point that they could track 90 percent of those asteroids by 2030.

The single largest advancement to help asteroid tracking would be the launch of an orbiting infrared telescope that could look out into space, as opposed to focusing on near-Earth orbiting objects, said John Holdren, the director of the Office of Science and Technology Policy in the Executive Office of the President.

However, current capabilities would not be able to track a large, “civilization-ending” asteroid far enough in advance to do something to knock it off course.

“If it’s coming in three weeks, pray,” Bolden said.

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