Air Force monitoring space debris

The United States has been leading the world in space exploration and technology for more than 30 years, but that activity has left about 10,000 objects — including operating and defunct spacecraft — orbiting the Earth.

Despite the vastness of space, all of that debris must be constantly monitored to determine potential impacts with U.S. and allied space assets and issue timely warnings and recommendations for countermeasures.

That job includes compiling and analyzing more than 100,000 daily observations. To carry out all that work, the Air Force Space Command's 1st Space Control Squadron is using Silicon Graphics Inc. (SGI) computing and storage technology, said squadron commander Lt. Col. Scott Shepherd.

Shepherd's unit, based at Cheyenne Mountain Air Force Station, Colo., is the focal point for U.S. Strategic Command, NASA and other organizations that need near-real-time information on space debris.

The group commands and controls the worldwide Space Surveillance Network's 30 operational sensors designed to detect, track, identify and catalog positional data for all man-made objects in the Earth's orbit.

Shepherd said the SGI equipment, which includes two Origin 3400 servers and two Origin 2000 servers, is part of the Space Surveillance Network Improvement Program and helps the Air Force "better track and identify different types of man-made space objects and provide this data to our customers in near-real time."

He added that the network includes massive mission-critical data repositories, and the Origin 3000 servers have been used as storage management systems for those databases.

The storage-area network, along with an SGI shared-file system, enables groups of computers to simultaneously access large amounts of data. Based on the shared data, the Air Force charts preset positions, plots future orbital paths and forecasts where and when objects might re-enter the Earth's atmosphere. That data is forwarded to U.S. Space Command 14 days before an object is projected to make its entrance.

The squadron also does collision avoidance analysis for NASA's space shuttles and the International Space Station by constructing a "theoretical box" around the object and projecting the flight path for 36 to 72 hours. If any of the catalogued space objects intersect the box, the Air Force forwards the analysis to NASA to determine if a flight-path change is necessary.

The Air Force purchased the SGI equipment early last year for $500,000 and is discussing upgrading its storage capabilities, according to a company spokesman.

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