So now we're launching "neighborhood watch" satellites

When I first heard the phrase “neighborhood watch satellite” I assumed that we had some new surveillance equipment mounted on spacecraft which could track everyone’s movements on a block by block basis. Frankly, that probably wouldn’t be a terrible idea, but it’s not what’s going on at all. Tomorrow NASA will be launching one pair of a set of new Air Force satellites (the first pair went up two years ago) which are keeping an eye on a different neighborhood… the one in low Earth orbit. (USA Today)

“Space has been, until recently, a ‘sanctuary’ from intentional attack, but that sanctuary status has now eroded or vanished,” reads a National Academies report released this week titled, “National Security Space Defense and Protection.”

A successful launch early Friday by a Delta IV rocket is part of Air Force efforts to deter any aggressive action against national security and commercial satellites flying high above the globe.

The United Launch Alliance rocket is targeting a 12:47 a.m. ET Friday liftoff from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station with a second pair of satellites described as providing a “neighborhood watch” more than 22,000 miles up.

Artwork on the 206-foot rocket’s nose cone features an owl alighting on the Latin motto “Videmus Omnia,” or “We see all.”

I suppose “neighborhood watch” is a good enough description because these birds aren’t carrying any offensive weaponry which could actually do anything about an attack on one of our other satellites. They’re just there to monitor the situation so we can figure out who took out the equipment. The major concern being cited is the possibility of there being “space mines” in orbit, ostensibly put up by the Russians, the Chinese or any other spacefaring nations. In theory, these flying bombs could be quite small and remain inert in low orbit until called upon to reposition themselves near one our GPS satellites and then detonate. From my experience in the field years ago I can say that you don’t need a massive blast to take out a satellite. In fact, the equivalent of a blast from a 12 gauge shotgun could probably cripple most of them entirely.

Is this a wise and productive investment? When you consider how much we actually rely on our satellites today it would be a hard point to argue. If you want to dig into the subject, check out the new book from Greg Milner, Pinpoint: How GPS is Changing Technology, Culture and our Minds. Greg cover the history of GPS satellite technology and the depths to which it has permeated virtually every aspect of commerce, government and even social interaction. With that in mind, protecting our birds up there is something of a priority to say the least.

Of course, you don’t need a space bomb to cause havoc to the system. The Chinese destroyed one of their own weather satellites with a missile in 2007 and since then they have been developing the capability to wipe out virtually every satellite in orbit if they wish to. And again, it doesn’t require a nuke or any significant firepower. You just need a really accurate rocket and a big net. That brings us back to the question of the neighborhood watch. If our adversaries aren’t making any secret of their capacity to do this and we can’t stop them once the attack begins, then what good is having a monitor watching them?


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