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Satellite collision opens up the world of space surveillance

February 12, 2009

Top story on many news channels today is the collision of a US Iridium telecommunications satellite with an obsolete Russian military satellite. Iridium is an interesting company that is almost permanently bankrupt (due to the rise of GPS-enabled mobile telephones) yet whose largest single customer is the US Department of Defense, which uses a Hawaii-based gateway for a secure network using NSA-approved handsets.

The Phased Array Radar pyramid at RAF Fylingdales (Yorkshire CND)

The Phased Array Radar pyramid at RAF Fylingdales (Yorkshire CND)

Even more interesting however is that the story mentions the obscure work of the Space Surveillance Network or SPACETRACK, formerly operated by US Space Command (USSPACECOM), now along with all of that influential body’s operations, part of US Strategic Command (USSTRATCOM). This global network of 25 bases using Phased-Array Radar and other tracking systems includes the RAF station at Fylingdales in North Yorkshire.

Satellite view of RAF Fylingdales (Cryptome)

Satellite view of RAF Fylingdales (Cryptome)

Debris in Low Earth Orbit (NSA Orbital Debris Program Office)

Debris in Low Earth Orbit (NSA Orbital Debris Program Office)

SPACETRACK continually watches earth orbit for new objects, which are then added to the US space catalogue. It also tracks debris fields, which are increasing in number and becoming more of a hazard for new space craft, and therefore problems for both military and civilian communications, weather, mapping and surveillance systems. This collision would seem to have been in relatively low orbit which causes the most problems. Cleaning up earth orbit would be a very good idea, but few people seem to have any serious ideas as to how it might be done. Some even argue that such a clean-up could destroy a valuable source of historical information!

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