Revolutionary Tech Could Allow Near-Real Time Space Tracking, Company Says

MAUI: The Space Force is testing out new software that could not only improve the accuracy of its current system for tracking satellites and dangerous junk in space, but also enable actual tracking in near-real time that would allow the service to keep better tabs on adversary spacecraft seeking to hide from prying eyes.

The software package was developed by The MITRE Corporation, a non-profit federally funded research and development center, and was turned over to Space Systems Command (SSC) in July for operational prototyping after two years of internal MITRE development and testing, said MITRE senior systems analyst Bob Carden. Called SNARE for Sensor Network Autonomous Resilient Extensible, its capabilities are detailed in a highly technical MITRE paper being presented here at the Advanced Maui Optical and Space Surveillance Technologies Conference (AMOS) conference.

Put simply, the software “improves positional awareness of objects in space,” said Carden, an author of the technical paper. Carden spoke to Breaking Defense along with the other two authors, senior operations analyst Justin Burchett and blockchain capability lead Harvey Reed.

According to the paper, in a MITRE test against 1,000 randomly chosen orbiting targets, SNARE demonstrated that its use could provide an average improvement of the accuracy of space objects in Space Force’s “catalog” by 0.8 kilometers, and “over 10 percent of the catalog had accuracy improved by more than 3.0 kilometers.”

A three kilometer difference in where a satellite operator thinks another satellite or piece of space junk could be fatal, resulting in a damaging collision.

In addition, and just as important, SNARE decreased by six hours the average time it takes the current Space Force system, called SP Tasker, to re-find an object after it maneuvers. It also significantly reduced the gap time in coverage of objects.

This timing aspect is crucial to DoD’s capability to keep tabs on highly maneuverable satellites, such as those being tested by Russia and China, that military space leaders fear could be satellite attack weapons.

Carden said SNARE can provide three key revolutionary capabilities for space situational awareness:  “autonomous sensor management, change detection, and dynamic tipping and queuing” of other sensors when an object of special interested is seen.

SP Tasker manages the 30-odd sensors (radar and telescopes) that make up the US military’s Space Surveillance Network (SSN) by scheduling “views,” which are planned based on where an object was located in the past. This means that if an object moves between one of those “looks,” it can get “lost” to the sensor network.

“SNARE reacts to information as it occurs,” Carden said. “SP Tasker takes everything we told it about yesterday, and plans the next day’s work. Well, that’s great if nothing happens, and everything goes as you thought it was going to. But if something happens that you weren’t planning for — the piece of junk wakes up and starts talking, something maneuvers that you weren’t expecting — that schedule that SP Tasker developed for you at 0100 this morning, that schedule is now blown, and you have to recalculate that whole schedule to be optimal again.”

And that is a job that often requires laborious manual effort by operators at the 18th Space Control Squadron.

The orbital parameters of objects in space, called Two-Line Elements (TLEs), made public by DoD through its SSA data sharing website, Space-Track.org, are notoriously inaccurate. Indeed, the website itself itself cautions users that “a TLE available to the public should not be used for conjunction assessment prediction” — i.e., predicting close approaches and possible collisions, which is exactly what space operators need to do to keep their satellites safe.

Thus, DoD has been seeking improved SSA capabilities, from increasing the number of sensors in the SSN by integrating commercial and allied sensor data to improving accuracy of tracking, to enabling real-time ‘custody’ of an object once it has been identified. MITRE says SNARE can do all of those things, if it can be scaled up.

The MITRE officials explained that SNARE can be cheaply integrated to any type of sensor, and easily and cheaply back-fitted onto any of those already in the SSN network. It also can work with newer sensor types, such as passive radio frequency trackers or those that use magnetic fields.

But there remain hurdles, Carden said for SSC to work out before SNARE can be made fully operational.

“I think the government’s role at this point is to figure out what type of architecture they want to deploy it, because there’s lots of possible ways to do this,” he said.

Another issue is “how we integrate this into the current existing systems without blowing things up or making it an all or nothing,” he added. And finally, there is the question of “what’s the hardware footprint look like and how to manage that.”

Space Force was unable to provide a comment by press time.

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Theresa Hitchens