If you’ve ever been lost in an unfamiliar area and have had to wait until your GPS determined how you needed to get where you wanted to go, you have some understanding of how dependent we have all become on space-based technology. The satellites that surround the Earth in geosynchronous orbit is now essential to modern communications, and are a critical component of life in the information age.
Consider their varied responsibilities, which involved a lot more than making sure everyone around the world can watch the Superbowl in real time.
Satellites have enhanced U.S. military capabilities, directed first responders to trouble spots in time of crisis, even allowed scientists to predict the path of hurricanes. All of these are potentially life-saving activities, yet our “eyes in the sky” are woefully unprotected.
One of the biggest threat to satellites and consequently, everyday life, is space debris. An unintended consequence of all the activity over the last 50 years, the probability that some vital part of a satellite system will be disabled when a discarded rocket booster collides with it miles and miles into the heavens is now significant enough that it needs to be addressed.
This is not a hypothetical problem. In 2009, an U.S. Iridium communication satellite was destroyed when a defunct Russian satellite crashed into it, creating hundreds of pieces of space junk. In 2011, American astronauts prepared to evacuate the International Space Station because of a wayward piece of space debris. Every once in a while it even drops out of the sky before it crash lands in some desert or someone’s backyard. The United States, which is really the only nation with the technological capacity and infrastructure necessary to do the job correctly, needs to develop "space situational awareness" to better assess where objects are in the air and prevent debris from taking out a satellite.
The U.S. military has pledged to take the lead in protecting our space infrastructure by developing and building a new Space Fence. The U.S. Air Force needs to act on this now, so that the system can be operational as soon as possible and the threat to our nation's infrastructure is minimized.