Military in space: Less money, more junk to track

AP News
Posted: Apr 12, 2011 2:57 PM
Military in space: Less money, more junk to track

The future of the U.S. military space program will include tight budgets, complicated demands and increasing threats from orbiting debris and anti-satellite weapons, an Air Force general and a Pentagon official predicted Tuesday.

"Dependence on space is high, higher than it's ever been, for sure, in the Department of Defense," Gen. William Shelton, head of the Air Force Space Command, said at the National Space Symposium.

Shelton said he expects no increases in his budget, while demands for critical services such as the Global Positioning System, which is run by the Air Force, won't decline.

GPS uses satellite signals to pinpoint the location of receivers on Earth. It has become essential not only to thousands of military weapons, ships and aircraft but for civilian uses in cellphones, cars and aviation, fostering a $110 billion industry, Shelton said.

"Nobody's going to relieve us of that responsibility," he said.

With the military space program facing flat budgets, Shelton told space contractors at the symposium that the Defense Department and industry must find a way to contain costs, especially on launches.

Another concern is "counterspace" threats to satellites from the ground or space, he said. Shelton didn't elaborate, but China has demonstrated the ability to knock out an object in space, destroying one of its own satellites with a missile in 2007.

Gregory Schulte, deputy assistant secretary of defense for space policy, said China is developing a range of other space capabilities, including lasers and devices to jam satellite signals.

"We watch the Chinese very carefully," Schulte said Tuesday in an interview with The Associated Press.

"We want to engage the Chinese. We want to talk to them about the responsible use of space, but at the same time we also want to deter them and others from thinking that they would benefit from attacking our space systems."

The United States is also working with the European Union and other nations to develop a space code of conduct to reduce the risk of creating more debris, Schulte said.

The military currently tracks about 21,000 objects in orbit, including active satellites and human-made debris from dead satellites and spent rockets.

That number is expected to triple by 2030, partly because improved sensors will be able to pick up smaller objects that are currently undetectable, but also because of new debris, some created when existing pieces collide and break into more, smaller pieces, Shelton said.

The U.S. is taking steps to reduce the amount of space trash it creates, he said.

"In fact, if the Air Force wants to launch a satellite and it's going to leave some debris in space, they have to come to the deputy secretary of defense and ask for an exemption to do that and explain why they're doing it," Shelton said.