(CN) – The era of a “Star Wars” satellite system remains a concept for a movie series as the United States struggles to maintain its military and civilian satellites, a weakness shown by warning systems that proved useless in detecting and alerting India and Russia before their satellites collided.
The Global Positioning System, missile warning systems, military communications, and a system that tracks dangerous high-speed space trash are imperiled by the soaring costs of launching satellites and delays in the replacement of aging satellites.
“Space is more crowded than ever,” said Lieutenant General Larry James of the Air Force Space Command in testimony before the Senate Subcomittee on Strategic Forces.
Florida Democratic Senator Bill Nelson, the subcommittee chair, said there may be a gap in communications services beginning in 1918, services he called “critical” to the nation.
Nelson was worried, for example, about a polar orbiting environmental satellite, which will be decommissioned.
Lieutenant General Larry James of the Air Force Space Command said that environmental satellites are not only needed to cover Earth’s weather, but also to report on solar wind and solar flux. He said we have to track nuts and bolts in space that travel at about 17,000 miles per hour.
The government is supposed to warn of satellite collisions, but Nelson noted that an Indian satellite collided with a Russian satellite, which sparked a discussion of today’s satellite capabilities.
Kehler mentioned one satellite that is 11 months late in deployment, and another with a shorter lifetime than expected, highlighting the satellite shortage.
“Is there a backup plan besides just the rollout of what you have scheduled?” asked Louisiana Republican Senator Vitter.
James answered that if some satellites fail, the government can adjust the orbits of the remaining satellites.
To run GPS, James explained that 24 satellites are needed as a bare minimum, but that the United States has 30. “That gives us a little bit of breathing space.”
Cristina Chaplain, the Director of Acquisition and Sourcing Management, added that “Measures can be taken to extend the life of satellites,” such as cutting power to secondary functions.
Before going into secret meetings, a Senate subcommittee considered launching smaller satellites as a solution. Vitter said smaller satellites are simpler and much cheaper. They can be put up faster and at a lower cost.
“We focus too much on large, complex systems,” he said.