UEDEM, Germany (Reuters) - Outer space is getting more and more crowded. Thousands of satellites, parts of satellites and random pieces of space junk are hurtling around the earth, and that may include rogue satellites that could be used to damage other spacecraft.
To keep track of it all, Germany is expanding its Space Situational Awareness Center, an installation that monitors objects flying through space - and the new threats it says are emerging each day.
The German military set up the centre in 2009, after China fired a missile from earth that destroyed one of its own ageing satellites. Every country that had launched a satellite understood the missile could just as easily have destroyed one of theirs.
“That was just the tip of the iceberg,” said Gerald Braun, a senior official with the civilian German Aerospace Center, which joined with the military to run the monitoring centre in 2011.
He said European authorities have also seen troubling attempts to jam military and commercial satellites, as well as cyber attacks on ground stations, Braun told Reuters in an interview at the centre in Uedem, near the Dutch border.
Air Force Colonel Thomas Spangenberg, who heads the monitoring centre, said a new experimental radar, which will become operational in 2018, will help Germany keep tabs on what is happening in the vast reaches of space, including potential launches of hidden “orbit-servicing” satellites.
“If you’re not watching carefully, these smaller satellites just peel off during the launch (of a larger satellite) and no one ever knows,” Spangenberg said. “I think that’s happened frequently in the past.”
U.S. and international space officials are increasingly concerned about small satellites that are being developed to repair commercial satellites in orbit, but which could also be used to sabotage a military satellite.
“We have to assume that other countries, besides China, have the capability to carry out military operations in space,” Spangenberg said, citing reports that Russia had tested an anti-satellite missile as recently as May.
German authorities now use U.S. data to do their own analysis of potential threats in space, but they say the new German Experimental Space Surveillance and Tracking Radar, or GESTRA, being developed by the Fraunhofer Institute will dramatically boost their capabilities.
Officials hope to add three more radars to the new GESTRA system over the medium term, but Spangenberg said the military would see how the new radar performed and decide on a way ahead by around 2020.
The U.S. military now monitors about 30,000 objects in space measuring 10 cm or larger, but an estimated 700,000 additional objects as small as 1 cm are also flying around that could damage or even destroy a satellite, Braun said.
“We are only starting to realize how dependent our society has become on space assets across the board,” Braun said. “The train has already left the station and we are running after it, and we have to run damned fast to catch up.”
Reporting by Andrea Shalal, editing by Larry King