By Irene Klotz
CAPE CANAVERAL, Florida (Reuters) - The United States plans to launch a pair of satellites to keep tabs on spacecraft from other countries orbiting 22,300 miles 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 website.
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. These range from old rocket bodies to the remains of an exploded Chinese satellite.
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 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," Weeden said.
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," Weeden added.
Costs and technical details of the program were not released.
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 of 2014.
Shelton said two replacement satellites are targeted for launch in 2016.
(This version of the story corrects spelling of Weeden in paragraphs 9 and 13)
(Reporting by Irene Klotz; Editing by David Gregorio)