New US spy satellites to track Chinese and Russian threats in orbit

The satellites will be positioned approximately 22,000 miles (35,400 kilometers) above the Earth.

The US Space Force will launch a constellation of satellites this summer to track Chinese or Russian spacecraft that can potentially disable or damage orbiting objects, the latest step in the burgeoning extraterrestrial competition between superpowers.

Dubbed “Silent Barker,” the network would be the first of its kind to integrate ground-based sensors and low-Earth orbit satellites, according to the Space Force and analysts. The satellites will be positioned about 22,000 miles (35,400 kilometers) above the Earth and at the same rate of rotation, known as geosynchronous orbit.

“This capability enables threat indications and alerts” against high-value U.S. systems and “will provide capabilities to search, detect and track objects from space for early detection of threats,” the Space Force, which is developing the satellites with National Reconnaissance Office, it said in a statement.

The Silent Barker constellation of satellites is scheduled for launch after July aboard an Atlas V booster operated by Boeing Co.-Lockheed Martin Corp.’s United Launch Alliance, the NRO said in a statement. The launch date will be announced 30 days in advance on Facebook and Twitter, quite a change for an agency that has been around for decades but whose existence wasn’t declassified until 1992.

Silent Barker is a response to efforts by China and Russia to develop systems that can be launched into orbit and scatter other satellites, something that is a growing concern for the United States.

The new constellation “will greatly enhance the Space Force’s ability to track adversary orbiting satellites that may be maneuvering around or near our satellites,” said Sarah Mineiro, former chief of staff of the strategy subcommittee of the House Armed Services Committee who oversees space programs.

Satellites grappling

Silent Barker addresses the limitations of ground-based or lower-orbit surveillance systems and allows the United States to “really understand what’s going on up there in space,” he said.

In its annual threat assessment this year, the Office of the Director of National Intelligence said that China has weapons designed to target US and allied satellites and that “counterspace operations will be an integral part of potential military campaigns of the PLA”, referring to the People’s Liberation Army.

One example is the Chinese satellite SJ-21, which launched in 2021 and subsequently successfully pulled a defunct Chinese satellite several hundred miles into higher orbit. Another Chinese satellite, Sijian-17, is equipped with a robotic arm that “could be used to grab other satellites,” according to a 2022 Defense Intelligence Agency report.

In congressional testimony in March, General James Dickinson, head of the US space command, said that the SJ-21 “could clearly play a counterspace role and put our geosynchronous satellites at risk.” SJ-21 is the kind of satellite Silent Barker will follow as it tries to “detect or discover new objects,” Space Force said.

The Space Force and NRO did not specify how many satellites would make up the Silent Barker constellation other than to say there will be “more spacecraft” involved.

Space-based surveillance augments ground-based sensors and “overcomes the limitations of ground-based sensors by providing timely 24-hour collection of satellite data,” the Space Force said. Ground-based sensors of objects in geostationary orbit “are limited by distance, geography and weather conditions” but “Silent Barker will overcome the observation gaps,” he said.

(This story has not been edited by NDTV staff and is auto-generated from a syndicated feed.)

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