(Corrects spelling of Weeden in paragraphs 9 and 13)
By Irene Klotz
CAPE CANAVERAL Fla. Feb 22 The United States
plans to launch a pair of satellites to keep tabs on spacecraft
from other countries orbiting 22,300 miles (35,970 km) above the
planet, as well as to track space debris, the head of Air Force
Space Command said.
The previously classified Geosynchronous Space Situational
Awareness Program (GSSAP) will supplement ground-based radars
and optical telescopes in tracking thousands of pieces of debris
so orbital collisions can be avoided, General William Shelton
said at the Air Force Association meeting in Orlando on Friday.
He called it a "neighborhood watch program" that will
provide a more detailed perspective on space activities. He said
the satellites, scheduled to be launched this year, also will be
used to ferret out potential threats from other spacecraft.
The program "will bolster our ability to discern when
adversaries attempt to avoid detection and to discover
capabilities they may have which might be harmful to our
critical assets at these higher altitudes," Shelton said in the
speech, which also was posted on the Air Force Association's
The two-satellite network, built by Orbital Sciences Corp
will drift around the orbital corridor housing much of
the world's communications satellites and other spacecraft.
The Air Force currently tracks about 23,000 pieces of
orbiting debris bigger than about 4 inches (10 cm). These range
from old rocket bodies to the remains of an exploded Chinese
The Air Force released a fact sheet emphasizing the
program's debris-monitoring abilities. Brian Weeden, technical
advisor with the Washington-based Secure World Foundation, said
the U.S. military already has a satellite in a better position
to do that job.
"I think the (Obama) Administration is being more honest
when it says that it declassified this program to try and deter
attacks on U.S. satellites," in geostationary, or GEO, orbits
located about 23,000 miles (about 36,000 km) above Earth,
Weeden wrote in an email to Reuters.
"The U.S. has a lot of very specialized and important
national security satellites in the GEO region and it is very
concerned about protecting those satellites ... so by telling
other countries that it has some ability to closely monitor
objects near GEO and their behavior, the U.S. hopes that will
deter other countries from attacking its important satellites,"
The new satellites also will give the U.S. military greater
insight into what other countries have in orbit.
"There's nothing wrong with that, but it is exactly the sort
of thing the U.S. is worried other countries will do to it,"
Costs and technical details of the program were not
The satellites are scheduled for launch aboard an unmanned
Delta 4 rocket, built by United Launch Alliance, a partnership
of Lockheed Martin and Boeing, from Cape
Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida during the last quarter
Shelton said two replacement satellites are targeted for
launch in 2016.
(Reporting by Irene Klotz; Editing by David Gregorio)