It is estimated that 1,738 operational satellites are orbiting the Earth. According to a report from the United Nations Institute for Disarmament Research (UNIDIR), the satellites belong to about 441 private companies and 93 governments. The information highlights the need for spatial management of satellites and other objects in space.
“There is great concern regarding existing debris in space. They are in low orbit and fly at a speed of about 8 kilometers per second, which means that any collision with small debris may be devastating to a satellite,” said Brazilian Air Force (FAB, in Portuguese) Lieutenant General Jefson Borges, chief of the Aeronautics General Staff Third Subdivision. According to the officer, such debris often remains in orbit for centuries.
The UNIDIR report indicates that the U.S. Space Surveillance Network monitors more than 23,000 objects greater than 10 centimeters that orbit the Earth; the majority of these are potentially destructive debris. Faced with the current space reality, the United States seeks partners willing to share services and information on the objects they keep in orbit.
Fifteen countries — including Brazil — have already signed the Space Situational Awareness (SSA) agreement. Two government agencies and 70 companies that work with the development, launch, and operation of satellites have also joined the agreement. The initiative promotes nations’ awareness on space activities and increases the safety of space operations. “Cooperation and partnerships such as these are vital for the United States and our allies to maintain effective space situational awareness and for everyone to continue to benefit from the critical domain that is space,” stated U.S. Navy Rear Admiral Richard A. Correll, director, Plans and Policy for U.S. Strategic Command (STRATCOM), at the signing of the agreement with Brazil, through FAB, in August 2018.
Brazilian forward thinking
Brazil is the only country in Latin America to join nations signatories to the SSA. The agreement kicked off some activities, such as a visit of a FAB delegation in December 2018, to the U.S. Combined Space Operations Center (CSpOC), and other organizations that support the U.S. Air Force’s space operations and STRATCOM, located at Vandenberg Air Force Base, in California.
This meeting between Brazilian and U.S. service members was important to establish SSA channels to exchange information between CSpOC and the Brazilian Space Operations Center, under FAB’s Aerospace Operations Command. The data cross-check, available through information provided by the various countries, organizations, and companies signatories to the SSA agreement, creates essential support for spatial activities, such as satellite launching and decommissioning, satellite maneuver planning, support for in-orbit anomalies, electromagnetic interference investigation, and in-orbit conjunction assessments.
In addition to the delegation’s visit, FAB sent an officer to complete the Global Space Situational Awareness Course, in January 2019. The 319th Combat Training Squadron offers the training at Peterson Air Force Base, in Colorado Springs.
The two-week class provided space operators with a deep knowledge of SSA missions, focusing on space surveillance activities. “The course was essential to expand our knowledge on SSA services enabled by the agreement and to teach us how to better use them,” said Lt. Gen. Jefson Borges.
One more step
In addition to the SSA agreement, Brazil and the United States have other commitments on the use of space. A year ago, both nations renewed the understanding of the terms of the agreement on the Cooperation on Peaceful Uses of Outer Space. The accord was signed for the first time in 2011 and became effective again in Brazil on April 3, 2018. Through the document, both nations commit to identifying areas of mutual interest and to seek the development of cooperative programs or projects to explore the peaceful uses of outer space.