DARPA Tracking All Satellites in Space Raises Questions

The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) is embarking on an ambitious program that will track the unique visual signatures of individual satellites for quick identification, and whether a friend or a foe of the U.S owns the asset.

As near space continues to be an increasingly crowded area (and the probability of satellite collision increases), this program will track satellites via ground and space sensors to help reduce accidents.  DARPA’s solicitation noted that, "Some objects are frequently lost, and sometimes serendipitously reacquired without recognition of its previous catalog existence, unless manpower-intensive analysis intervenes."

It is expected that the technology behind this program will be software that uses algorithms for automated identification based on satellite signatures. In addition, DARPA is primarily calling on small businesses to fulfill this need, which may mean that the large prime contractors are focusing on securing contracts with the U.S. Air Force for more expensive space system solutions.

In terms of tracking all assets in near space, the Space Data Association is already performing collision avoidance monitoring for over 300 satellites, as well as much more to deal with overcrowding in space.  We wonder if DARPA will be working closely with the Space Data Association on this program?   It would certainly make strategic sense. 

We also wonder what kind of action the Department of Defense (DoD) would take if a satellite owned by a U.S. foe comes perilously close to a U.S-owned asset.   Would they take action?  Would they notify the owner of the satellite?  

Intelsat General believes that a system that tracks the initial rocket launch and upper-stage activity using both infrared and Space Situational Awareness (SSA) technologies would be useful to establish and tag the spacecraft with country of origin. 

Fully tracking and monitoring all assets in near space is certainly a major challenge.  Whether it is DARPA, the Space Data Association or members of industry, more needs to be done to address this pressing issue.  And, as multiple nations are launching satellites into space on a near-weekly basis, the challenge of tracking all space assets will only grow more difficult.