Craig Covault of SpaceFlight Now reports that the Pentagon has recently unveiled a new--an exceptionally promising--space surveillance capability.
In late December and again in early January, a pair of classified "Mitex" inspection spacecraft, built by Lockheed-Martin and Orbital Sciences, maneuvered in close proximity to a dead Defense Support Program (DSP) satellite. The operation gave U.S. military and intelligence officials their first, close-up look at another spacecraft in geosynchronous orbit.
While the maneuver was used to inspect another American satellite, the implications of the Mitex experiment are clear:
Since the U.S. is now demonstrating the ability to do such up close rendezvous and inspection of American spacecraft in geosynchronous orbit, it means USAF now has at least a "call up capability" to do the same to non-U.S. spacecraft like those from Russia and China.
The operation, at nearly 25,000 miles altitude, reveals a major new U.S. military space capability, says John Pike who heads GlobalSecurity.Org, a military think tank.
"There is not much we do in space any more that is really new, but this is really new," Pike tells Spaceflightnow.com.
Although being used in this operation to obtain data on a failed U.S. spacecraft, such inspections of especially potential enemy spacecraft, is something the Pentagon has wanted to do since the start of the space age, Pike says.
The Mitex satellites have been in orbit since 2006. Until last month, the two platforms were tasked to rendez-vous with each other and carry out inspections. Weighing only 500 pounds each, the Mitex platforms are tiny in comparison to other satellites in geosynchronous orbit. The failed DSP satellite, used as the target for the Mitex experiment, are more than 30 feet long and weigh 2.5 tons.
Word of the inspection effort is bound to anger China, which tested its own "killer" satellite system just two years ago. Availability of the Mitex system would not only allow the U.S. to inspect suspicious platforms in geosynchronous orbit, it could also be used in an offensive role, targeting enemy surveillance and communications platforms--or their anti-satellite systems. On the other hand, word of the U.S. program could spur Beijing
The Mitex craft are part of a classified program, run by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA). As a result of the DSP inspection (and previous tests), both inspection satellites are believed to be low on propellant. As they reach the end of their service life in the coming years, the Mitex birds will be moved into "graveyard" orbits, above those of geosynchronous platforms.
While the Mitex program shows great promise, it faces an uncertain future. On the campaign trail last year, President Barack Obama pledged that he "would not weaponize space." In some quarters, the inspection satellite is considered an offensive system, and covered by Mr. Obama's pledge.
However, the president's vow has no bearing on Russia or China, which are developing space-based weapons that pose a growing threat to our military and commercial satellites. Mr. Obama should consider that reality before restricting our space-based systems.
ADDENDUM: Aa Mr. Covault notes, the failure of DSP 23 is yet another reminder of the serious problems affecting our surveillance constellation. The DSP birds are designed to provide early warning of enemy missile launches (and other major IR events). DSP 23 was designed as a gap filler, providing additional detection capability until the new Space Based Infrared Satellite (SBIRS) program becomes operational.
But SBIRS has suffered a host of development problems and won't be operational until the next decade. With the loss of DSP 23, the Air Force is now scrambling for another, gap-filling satellite.