Report from Washington, D.C.

Space Foundation Briefing Features Kehler

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Space Foundation Briefing Features Kehler Space situational awareness (SSA) was a recurring theme at the Space Foundation Correspondents Group (SFCG) meeting May 6 in Washington, D.C.

Speaking with about a dozen reporters, General C. Robert Kehler, USAF, commander, Air Force Space Command, said that the United States is working to update its Cold War-era SSA system, a need made more urgent by the recent unexpected collision between an active Iridium satellite and an inactive Russian satellite. He said that the Air Force is adding computing capacity and analysts who can interpret the data to evaluate potential hazards flagged by the automated system, which will enable the Air Force to monitor all active payloads and many inactive payloads in space by the end of the year.

Gen. Kehler spoke about fusing data from ground or space sensors with data provided by operators tracking their own satellites for operational purposes. Although Space Command’s top priority will always be ensuring the safety of human spaceflight, Gen. Kehler said his team is working on a better system for notifying satellite operators of dangers to their assets. As SSA improves and the trajectories of debris are better known, he said it should reduce the number of false alarms for NASA and the amount of precautionary maneuvers space crews must complete.

When asked about the Navy’s proposed unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) that is supposed to be able to operate with or without space-based communications, Gen. Kehler replied that he saw the approach as good risk management rather than a lack of confidence in space systems. He said keeping military systems operable without space links deters attacks on those links because adversaries would tend to reconsider hostile actions that have only limited impact on U.S. military effectiveness. He said a smart weapon should be able to use global positioning satellite (GPS) technology for as long as it can, but then be able to switch to an internal guidance system if the GPS signal is unavailable, adding that, as chipset manufacturing technology improves, having multiple guidance systems becomes less costly and more feasible.

Gen. Kehler said the decision to delay the Transformational Communications Satellite (TSAT) program means that the Wideband Global SATCOM (WGS) system and Advanced Extremely High Frequency (AEHF) satellite system programs may need to have some of the TSAT technologies infused into them. Space Command is currently revisiting requirements to see how WGS and AEHF may be able to fill the gap, using USAF analysis completed last summer. He also said that much of the rest of the military’s communications needs will continue to go to the commercial sector.

Gen. Kehler also spoke about the acquisition process, saying that government agencies are looking at how they can pool their requirements to improve the health of the space industrial base. He cited, for example, that the Navy, the Missile Defense Agency, and NASA each purchase solid rocket motors, but none in quantities large enough to support a healthy industrial base. Therefore, he said, it makes sense to explore a common platform or architecture that allows users to mix-and-match parts according to their needs, saying that this can probably also be done with satellites in some cases.

This SFCG event is part of a regular series of gatherings for Washington, D.C.-based space, defense, science and technology, business, and international journalists to engage in dialogue with leaders from across the space industry.

This article is part of Space Watch: June 2009 (Volume: 8, Issue: 6).