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U.S., satellite operators discuss better tracking
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Post U.S., satellite operators discuss better tracking - 04-April-2009, 20:23

COLORADO SPRINGS, Colo. (Reuters) - U.S. military officials and commercial satellite operators Thursday discussed better tracking of satellites to avert collisions like the one that destroyed a Russian and U.S. satellite in February, creating more space debris.

The meeting, on the sidelines of the Space Foundation's National Space Symposium, is part of the U.S. Air Force's drive to improve tracking of objects in space.

The Air Force said this week it would work with U.S. Strategic Command to expand satellite tracking by October 1 to all 800 maneuverable spacecraft now operating.

The move was spurred by the February 10 collision of a dead Russian military communications satellite and a commercial U.S. satellite owned by Iridium, an event neither the U.S. military nor private tracking groups predicted.

British satellite communications company Inmarsat, which owns 11 satellites providing mobile phone and broadband coverage around the world, welcomed the news, said Rebecca Cowen-Hirsch, vice president for global government services.

"We've seen significant progress and movement on the defense side to explore more exchange of data and more meaningful data with industry," Cowen-Hirsch told Reuters at the annual space conference.

Lieutenant General Larry James, commander of the Air Force's Joint Functional Component Command for Space, attended a meeting hosted by industry in Washington last week, said Cowen-Hirsch, who participated in both meetings.

Inmarsat is one of several satellite operators that provide communications services to the U.S. military.

Commercial services account for about 80 percent of the military's satellite communications, although protected communications -- such as those used by the president -- come from military-owned and operated satellites, General Robert Kehler, head of Air Force Space Command, said Thursday.


Air Force Secretary Michael Donley told some 7,500 conference participants the satellite collision had focused attention on the need to increase and improve tracking of objects in space, and several efforts were under way.

He said the Air Force needed to field more capable sensors in space and on the ground, and to better integrate and manage data from existing sources and sensors.

The goal is to build an integrated network that includes data from commercial satellite operators, foreign governments, and all parts of the U.S. government. Officials are still trying to determine how to assure that the data can be trusted, particularly when it comes from satellite operators that do not have close ties to the U.S. government, Cowen-Hirsch said.

The Air Force has an Internet-based pilot program that allows commercial operators and foreign governments to report any issues with their spacecraft.

The trick, Donley said, was being able to assess rapidly what had happened, and then "straightforwardly differentiate between attack and anomaly."

One Air Force official, who said he was not authorized to speak on the record, said government attorneys were still working on legal agreements that commercial companies and satellite operators would have to sign to get access to the expanded tracking data.
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