New Central Coast operation prepares for collisions and conflict in space

Jul 20, 2018

The United States Armed Forces just created the first Combined Space Operations Center. For short, it’s called CSpOC (think “See Spock”). It’s a partnership to improve coordination with Canada, Australia, and the United Kingdom. Other U.S. allies like Germany are also involved, as are some private entities. CSpOC, located at Vandenberg Air Force Base near Lompoc, California, is now America's official international militarized space command center. Staff at the facility will keep an eye on about 23,000 objects in the sky.

“When these are in orbit, they’ll not only be tracking to make sure they don’t collide with other objects, but we also track their reentry,” CSpOC director, Colonel Scott Brodeur said. “So when they come back into the Earth’s atmosphere we can predict when and where.”

Brodeur pointed to a large metal orb on display in a hangar at Vandenberg Air Force Base. It was part of a GPS satellite launched in 1993. It's covered in scorch marks and was ripped in half on its reentry to Earth in 2004, landing in Argentina.

“An object the size of a ball bearing or a marble travels at about 17,000 miles per hour,” Brodeur said. “If it made contact with anything else in space—think a satellite or the International Space Station—it would actually have the impact force of an SUV traveling down the highway at 70 miles per hour.”

Since objects humans send into space are much larger than marbles, potential collisions could be even more destructive. And collisions cause more debris to shoot through space, which means more objects to keep an eye on.

Air Force General John Raymond oversees the whole operation.

“This center is absolutely critical to what we do in space,” Raymond said. “And space is absolutely critical to what we do as a nation, supporting our way of life.”

Raymond said the more objects that countries have in space, the more likely a conflict could arise.

“The way we talk about [space] is much more congested, it’s getting more contested and it’s becoming much more competitive,” Raymond said. “The CSpOC positions the U.S. and allied space forces to deter a conflict from extending into space, and should deterrence fail, to fight and win."

Raymond said that space threats could come from anywhere, like from a solar flare, or the collision of two satellites. And there was a time in 2007 when China shot down one of their own satellites and blew it into about 3,000 pieces.

Raymond said the center is focused on making sure the domain of space, “remains safe.”

“Some of our adversaries have capabilities that could come into close proximity with our satellites in space,” Brodeur said, pointing to an officer at a computer station in the top-level clearance facility. “He’s maintaining an awareness of those satellites in orbit and if any adversary might get a little too close, to look at or to do something nefarious, he is making sure he is aware of what’s going on. And he’s going to report [it] in case we want to either maneuver or take some type of defensive action.”

And who or what could cause “nefarious” actions?

“You’re thinking the big—Russia, China—adversaries that we’re concerned about,” Colonel Brodeur said. “There is no hostility at this point, but we all have capabilities we are concerned with, and theirs are our primary concerns because of their advancements in space.”

According to the U.S. Department of Defense, operations the CSpOC will direct include:

  • Missile Warning Positioning
  • Navigation and Timing
  • Navigation Warfare
  • Optimization/Restoration of Military Satellite Communications
  • Electro-Magnetic Spectrum Awareness and Resolution
  • Theater Battlespace
  • Awareness using Overhead Persistent Infrared
  • Environmental Monitoring
  • Theater Support Fires
  • Space Intelligence
  • Defensive Space Situational Awareness
  • Space Defense