General Touts Images from ‘Neighborhood Watch’ Satellites


The head of Air Force Space Command praised the performance of a new military satellite system designed in part to scour space for potential threats.

The service last year launched a pair of satellites as part of the Geosynchronous Space Situational Awareness Program (GSSAP). The spacecraft were built by Orbital Sciences Corp. to track other objects in geosynchronous orbit — a prized belt more than 22,000 miles above the equator where hundreds of military and commercial satellites operate.

“The pictures that we get off GSSAP are truly eye-watering and we’re learning things already,” Gen. John Hyten said at last week’s Space Symposium conference in Colorado Springs, Colo. “We’ll continue to learn things because when you just have dots on a map, you really don’t understand. When you have a picture to look at, you start to understand this space.”

His predecessor, retired Gen. William Shelton, described the program as a “neighborhood watch” for satellites, including those in the military’s Advanced Extremely High Frequency (AEHF) and Space Based Infrared System (SBIR) networks.

Two more satellites are expected to launch in 2016 for the new surveillance system, which complements existing telescopes on the ground and in low Earth orbits about 300 miles up. The program illustrates the rising concern among U.S. officials that other countries are developing anti-satellite technology rapidly enough to pose a threat to American hardware in space.


The U.S. and Russia have long agreed to avoid attacking each other’s geosynchronous satellites, which are designed to maintain the same position in space relative to the planet’s surface and critical for relaying everything from commercial television and radio to military surveillance and secure communications.

The U.S. and China, however, don’t have a similar agreement. What’s more, China in 2013 launched a ballistic missile to nearly geosynchronous orbit. Chinese officials defended the mission as a science experiment, but American analysts concluded it was really designed to test the potential of the anti-satellite missile Dong Ning-2.

“In our most valuable orbit, the geosynchronous belt, we need to understand if there are threats, if there are concerns — what is going on up there?” Hyten said. “Because just understanding where something is is not sufficient enough.”

He added, “So this satellite here is actually a very simple satellite, and when you look at it, you can see it’s basically just a sensor that can move and it’s flying in what is called ‘near geosynchronous orbit.’ It’ll fly around that orbit and we will be able to understand everything that is in the geosynchronous orbit to a very high quality.”

The spacecraft can perform so-called rendezvous and proximity operations, in which they maneuver to objects of interest for closer surveillance, according to an unclassified Air Force fact sheet about the program. Data will be sent from the spacecraft to ground control stations and collected for analysis at Schriever Air Force Base, Colorado, it states.

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Brendan McGarry
Brendan McGarry is the managing editor of He can be reached at Follow him on Twitter at @Brendan_McGarry.
  • Brian B. Mulholland

    It’d be extremely interesting to see how China responds to a public invitation to participate in the agreement to leave geosynchronous satellites alone and unmolested.

    • Fatman

      Such pressure has been put on China for decades now. Nothing yet.

  • Dawgnayshun

    Does anyone really believe that the Russians or Chinese would leave our satellites alone if the $h!t hit the fan? I would hope that to achieve some sort of advantage, we would be the first to take out their capabilities, agreement be damned. Nice guys finish last.

    • Fatman

      As far as people in the Philippines or Ukraine are concerned the $h!t has hit the fan with both China and Russia respectively.

      These slow drawn out conflicts look like the norm for 21st century empire building.

      • Drew

        … but the decision makers don’t live in Ukraine or The Philippines. It’s not a big deal, yet. Once bullets start flying in the direction of NATO troops from Russian rifles, it may change.

    • mule

      Actively destroying a satellite in Geo Sync would put all vehicles in that orbit at risk, including those of the attacker. Even a small debris cloud in that orbit could cause lots of problems for a long time.

      • NoMan

        So, you don’t demolish them, you just fry the electronics with, say, a focused EMF burst.

        • blight_

          Project Starfish scorched earth you mean?

        • mule

          Thus creating a multi-ton flying brick that will start drifting. Dead sats in GeoSync don’t stay put, but drift through other positions risking other vehicles. If a collision happens, you still get a debris cloud.