Tne failures of three aging satellites the United States relies upon to forecast space weather could leave the nation partially blind to electromagnetic storms that could severely disrupt electrical grids, communications systems, aviation and Global Positioning System (GPS) dependent navigation.
“The observations that we rely on to provide alerts and warnings are critical. Should we lose some of the key spacecraft that we talk about, I won’t say we’re blind but we’re darn close. It will impact our ability to support this nation’s need for space weather services. And I don’t want to see that happen,” said William Murtagh, director of NOAA’s Space Weather Prediction Center.
Senate and House committees held hearings on consecutive days last week about space situational awareness (SSA) and space traffic management (STM), i.e., the ability to accurately track objects in Earth orbit and to avoid dangerous collisions that could knock out satellites and even render entire orbits unusable.
The overall conclusion was that, although progress is being made, we’re not nearly as aware as we need to be as orbital debris poses an ever bigger problem and companies prepare to launch tens of thousands of new satellites.
“Near Earth space is geo-politically contested, it’s commercially contested and it’s in dire need of environmental protection because it is a finite resource,” said Moriba Jah, an associate professor of astronautics at the University of Texas.
SpaceX and other commercial launch providers will have more competition for lofting some of NASA’s science missions — courtesy of America’s nuclear arsenal.
NASA has agreed to consider using more ICBM-derived Minotaur IV boosters to launch medium-size missions after an investigation by the agency’s Inspector General found that the move could save a significant amount of money and hedge against delays in the availability of commercial alternatives.
In a report released today, the IG’s Office said NASA has been resisting the move because it could interfere with the development of other commercial alternatives. However, agency officials said they would include Minotaur IV for medium-size science missions after they were given a draft copy of the report. Minotaur IV was already in the mix for launching small payloads.