Air Force Space Command General on Keeping Space Collision-Free
“My area of operations is 73 trillion cubic miles.” Gen. John Hyten. He leads the U.S. Air Force Space Command. He’s counting all the space between the earth’s surface and geosynchronous orbit, about 22,200 miles up at the equator. General Hyten visited Scientific American’s offices February 26th. One area of discussion was the task of keeping the busy space above our planet free of dangerous and costly collisions.
“You have to know exactly what is going on, exactly when it’s going on, you have to able to predict potential hazardous collisions and you have to be able to predict threats. And you have to do that real time. So one of the reasons that we’re building capabilities like improved ground-based telescopes…we’re building space-based space surveillance systems…and then we have geosynchronous space situational awareness program satellites…that will move around the geosynchronous belt, giving us exquisite understanding of exactly what is in the geosynchronous belt, which is the most expensive real estate.
“Then the other thing the United States has decided to do is that we’re going to take all that information and we’re going to bring it all together and we’re going to process it, we’re going to do it with our allies…partner that capability, and then if we see any collision, we’re going to tell whoever that owner/operator is, whether it’s us, the commercial sector, Inmarsat, Intelsat, or even if it’s a Chinese or Russian satellite, we’re going to tell them.
“And one of the interesting things that’s happened in the last few months is that we used to have to tell the Chinese through the State Department, where we would see a potential collision involving a Chinese satellite, we’d be concerned and we’d provide the information, we’d send it to the State Department, the State Department would go to the Chinese Ministry and the Chinese Ministry would then go, who knows what happened after that. So a few months ago, the Chinese came and said we’d like to be able to receive that data directly into our operations center. And we said, we’ll do that.
“So four or five times now we’ve had potential Chinese issues and we send it right into China. And people get concerned about, are you giving away critical information. No, we’re protecting ourselves. We’re protecting that environment. I can’t tell you how bad debris in space would be, especially in the geosynchronous belt. We cannot have debris in that orbit. So we have got to make sure we do that. So it’s in our interest.”