Bringing Back Space Surveillance Capabilities with Hosted Payloads

Due to intense budget pressure, the Air Force Space Surveillance System, informally known as the Space Fence, has been permanently shuttered.  In operation since 1961, this radar system played a vital role tracking thousands of objects – from satellites to orbital debris and meteors – and stopping this program will create a savings of $14 million annually.

The demise of the Space Fence should invigorate exploiting low-cost surveillance opportunities using non-military and non-U.S. government sensors.  This is one of the key takeaways from a recent Space News Op-Ed by Dave Finkleman, a senior scientist in the Center for Space Standards and Innovation.

Supporting mission goals in times of extreme budget austerity is a significant challenge for our nation’s military and now is the time to seek more cost-effective alternatives to the Space Fence.

As one of the original supporters of the Space Data Association (SDA), Intelsat General has played a key role in supporting collaboration and data-sharing efforts to ensure the safety of today’s space environment.  Now is a critical time for our government to continue ensuring that we have the systems to keep space-based assets safe – with the ever increasing number of objects in space causing both safety and electronic interference challenges.

By leveraging a commercial satellite bus to gain timely, economical and responsive access to geosynchronous orbit, hosted payloads provide a unique solution for being able to re-deploy a new, and more cost-effective, Space Fence in the future. 

As highlighted by Finkleman, space surveillance is losing the budget battle because of the complexity of this effort and because Congress tends to fund projects that are more easily understood by its members and by senior military leaders.  Not only is the hosted payloads concept easy to understand – leveraging commercial systems for launching and managing assets in space – it is also highly cost effective and can help advance surveillance systems needed to keep our nation safe.  

The U.S. Air Force is already embracing hosted payloads with the Space and Missile Systems Center (SMC) issuing a directive earlier this year regarding the Hosted Payload Solutions (HoPS) acquisition, and the subsequent RFP.

To many, the $14 million savings the government will achieve through shuttering the Space Fence is viewed as minimal.  As Finkleman points out in his article, overcoming the current deficiencies will cost much more than this.  Fortunately there are solutions for advancing these mission goals without compromising today’s limited resources.

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