U.S. military vows to track 800 satellites by October 1

COLORADO SPRINGS, Colorado Mon Mar 30, 2009 10:52pm EDT

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COLORADO SPRINGS, Colorado (Reuters) - Spurred by last month's collision of two satellites high above the Earth, the U.S. military plans to begin tracking all 800 maneuverable spacecraft currently operating in space by October 1, a senior U.S. Air Force official said on Monday.

U.S. Strategic Command and Air Force Space Command will work together to expand the number of satellites being tracked from about 300 currently, Air Force Colonel Dusty Tyson, chief of the Pentagon's National Security Space Office, told reporters at a space conference in Colorado Springs.

He said the decision was made at a high-level Pentagon meeting on March 24 attended by Air Force Secretary Michael Donley, General Kevin Chilton, head of Strategic Command, General Robert Kehler, who runs Air Force Space Command and John Grimes, the Pentagon's chief information officer.

"They're going to stand up a level of capability by 1 October. They hope to be able to provide conjunction analysis on all 800, plus or minus, maneuverable satellites," Tyson said at the Space Foundation's annual National Space Symposium.

Tyson said some officials had long believed a collision of satellites would eventually happen and had been pressing for better tracking of satellites and other objects in space.

But the February 10 collision of a dead Russian military communications satellite and a commercial U.S. satellite owned by Iridium had spurred the military into quicker action, he said.

"It was definitely an impetus to get out and get moving faster. Now that the event has happened, there is definitely movement afoot to try to prevent it from happening again," he said.

Tyson declined comment on whether better tracking by the U.S. government could have averted the incident.

LIABILITY ISSUES

In order to get access to the expanded tracking data, companies and satellite operators would have to sign a legal agreement with the U.S. government, Tyson said.

He cited possible liability issues if a satellite operator moved to avoid one satellite and put itself in the way of another. There were also concerns about the integrity of the data, he added.

"There are legal aspects that go both ways. It's not going to happen unless there are some kind of signatures," he said.

Tyson said key details, such as the terms of those legal agreements and ways that data could be shared with the satellite community or academics, were still being worked out.

He acknowledged that expanding the tracking effort would be labor-intensive, and said Space Command did not have enough manpower to get the job done. He said he had no details on how much the effort would cost, or how it would be funded.

He said there were discussions about reaching out to China and Russia about participating in the tracking effort, but no final decisions had been made.

Colonel Sean McClung, director of the National Space Studies Center at U.S. Air Force Air University, said Washington remained skeptical about a treaty to ban weapons in space because it would be difficult to verify.

But he said support was growing in the United States and overseas for a code of conduct, instead of a formal treaty.

A proposal drafted by the Henry L. Stimson think tank on space "seems to have a lot of merit," McClung said, adding that he was speaking as an academic and not on behalf of the Air Force or the Obama administration.

(Editing by Mohammad Zargham)

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