ORLANDO, Fla. — A clone of the Space-Based Space Surveillance (SBSS) satellite made by a Boeing/Ball Aerospace team and launched last year is not necessary to continue the mission of tracking objects in space from space, says Gen. William Shelton, the new Air Force Space Command chief.
Debate is ongoing in the Pentagon about how to continue conducting this mission as the number of objects in space — all of which represent threats to operating satellites — grows substantially. The price tag of the first SBSS satellite, with a two-axis visible light sensor, was suppose to be just more than $800 million, but it eventually crept to about $1 billion. Shelton says that like other senior leaders in the Air Force, this has prompted a case of “sticker shock.”
The Air Force did not request funding for a follow-on satellite in the fiscal 2012 budget request; time is needed instead to sort out options.
Boeing/Ball had urged the service to consider buying a second satellite (Aerospace DAILY, March 17, 2010).
Vice Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Marine Gen. James Cartwright said this week that he wants to see more work done to explore alternatives because the Pentagon must be leery of committing to further expensive satellite systems as budgets flatten. Shelton agrees, adding that “I think we are going to have to go with good enough,” rather than reaching for the best that technology has to offer.
SBSS was borne out of experience the military had operating a visible light sensor on the Missile Defense Agency’s MSX satellite; that sensor was declared dead in the summer of 2008, years past its projected lifespan. Since then, there has been a gap in space situational awareness collection data from space; ground-based sensors are limited by weather or light conditions.
While this mission is increasingly critical to protect allied assets in space and preventing more satellite collisions, the Pentagon lacks the money to field a full-up constellation of cutting-edge satellites, Cartwright says.
The space-based visible sensor on MSX was considered simple compared to the SBSS payload, and “it worked just fine,” Shelton says.