FILE – In this photo provided by the U.S. Navy, sailors assigned to Explosive Ordnance Disposal Group 2 recover a high-altitude surveillance balloon off the coast of Myrtle Beach, S.C., Feb. 5, 2023. U.S. officials say the military has finished efforts to recover the remnants of the large balloon that was shot down off the coast of South Carolina, and analysis of the debris so far reinforces conclusions that it was a Chinese spy balloon. (U.S. Navy via AP)
Originally published: The Hill
BY ERIC INGRAM, OPINION CONTRIBUTOR - 03/09/23 4:00 PM ET
The Feb. 4 shootdown of what the Pentagon says was a Chinese spy balloon followed quickly by three unidentified aerial objects over domestic air space has created a flurry of public attention. This comes on the heels of optical telescopes confirming that Chinese green space lasers were reportedly scanning the atmosphere over Hawaii.
Tweaks to U.S. ground sensors have uncovered these phenomena even as government officials acknowledge that China’s balloon program over U.S. airspace was likely ongoing for years. But, despite this alarming discovery, the potential threat these surveillance activities pose to the United States pales in significance to the number of satellites being launched to low-Earth orbit with no ability to see what’s around them amid increasing adversarial threats.
Ensuring a safe, sustainable space environment requires a better understanding of the nature of space traffic, and the development of satellite autonomy. Better space traffic insight translates to a more enhanced understanding of who’s doing what, while space autonomy depends on spacecraft operating with full visibility of their surroundings. Make no mistake: Security and knowledge of orbit affects what happens on Earth. The two aren’t mutually exclusive; they’re interconnected.
For example, a bad actor in space could take out satellite-based internet, weather satellites or other Earth-observation systems that are critical to monitoring troop movements. These assets have proven critical for Ukraine to defend itself against a much larger Russia in what has become the first modern war of the high-tech age.
Space-based satellites also predict extreme weather, and even provide early warning for missile defense. Deliberate or accidental collisions could disrupt these systems that power much of today’s commerce, connectivity and sensor-based insights about the planet and the movement of people and critical assets. The earthquake that decimated Turkey and Syria’s internet infrastructure underscores the critical connectivity role space-borne internet will continue to play as more extreme weather events occur globally.
The satellite industry’s increasing alarms about the growing hazards of an increasingly crowded space environment are well known. Because satellites lack visibility of their environment, they must rely on ground systems to track where debris fields are, never mind seeing what’s being launched into orbit by adversarial nations.
And it’s only getting more crowded: The U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO) predicts that 58,000 satellites will be launched by 2030 – in addition to the 5,500 active satellites in orbit today. That’s a 10-fold increase in the next decade. Some 20 percent of those space assets are expected to launch from China, a country that has made no secret of its space ambitions to be the leader in low-Earth orbit and to establish a base on the moon.
Already, the situation is ripe for disaster. Consider the orbital “near misses” by SpaceX Starlink’s satellites from orbital debris, reported by Forbes last August, where the space-based internet service provider performed more than 6,000 maneuvers over six months to avoid collisions mostly caused by a November 2021 Russian anti-satellite weapons demonstration.
Yet, we are blind to our adversaries’ space activities — hostile nations are launching spacecraft of unknown sizes and types, and our ground segment cannot pinpoint neither the type of payloads being carried aboard nor the spacecraft’s propulsion capabilities.
Imagery of things in space is defined as either resolved or non-resolved. With non-resolved imagery, one sees dots in the distance doing something. In contrast, resolved imagery is where you can fashion details about what those dots are and what they are doing. Right now, we have an adequate understanding of unresolved imagery, but very poor understanding of resolved imagery. Why? Because existing ground-based systems fundamentally can’t provide that intelligence, and we don’t have the resources to build 100 giant telescopes for purely close-range observations. We’ve got to deploy assets in space.
This lack of visibility puts the United States at risk of falling behind on the space insight curve, and low public awareness of what’s at stake exacerbates the issue.
That’s why U.S. lawmakers need to embrace a larger framework for in-space “space domain awareness.” At the same time, they should mandate that all satellites launching into orbit carry camera systems on board to give them crucial visibility for safeguarding our nation and our intertwined space and ground assets. Imagine if every satellite had the equivalent of a smartphone camera onboard to capture space domain intelligence. The transparency and visibility would be a gamechanger.
The public’s obsession to find answers to the question of unidentified flying objects (UFOs) in our airspace is understandable, but we need a similar sense of urgency by the public when it comes to space situational awareness. Onboard camera sensors and in-space object tracking will go a long way toward establishing a comprehensive space domain awareness capability critical to our future and continued space leadership. Mobilizing these satellite technologies would give us complete real-time observation of all of low-Earth orbit in the next 10 years.
The time is now to act. Investing in space domain awareness will propel the U.S. to the pinnacle of space capabilities, with the ability to analyze and avoid collisions or other threats in real-time. In-space visibility promises another benefit — enabling us to more proactively track and study UFOs before they enter our airspace — a win-win for humanity and any future contact with extraterrestrial intelligence.
Eric Ingram is co-founder and CEO of SCOUT, Inc., which is enabling a new era of space safety and transparency by offering in-space observation data and services. A commercial spaceflight regulatory expert, Eric sits on the board of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) Advisory Committee on Commercial Remote Sensing. He began his space career as an engineer for asteroid-mining pioneer, Deep Space Industries, now part of Bradford Space.