The US Space Force conducted the first launch of a new constellation of early warning satellites designed to track Chinese or Russian spacecraft that could potentially disable or damage orbiting American systems.
(Bloomberg) — The US Space Force conducted the first launch of a new constellation of early warning satellites designed to track Chinese or Russian spacecraft that could potentially disable or damage orbiting American systems.
The network, dubbed “Silent Barker,” is the latest step in the burgeoning extraterrestrial contest between superpowers. The satellites launched from the Cape Canaveral Space Force Station in Florida are the first of their kind to complement US ground-based radar and low-earth orbit satellites, according to officials with the Space Force and the National Reconnaissance Office.
The satellites will be placed about 22,000 miles (35,000 kilometers) above Earth and at the speed it rotates, known as geosynchronous orbit. The Space Force and NRO wouldn’t detail how many satellites will make up the Silent Barker constellation or how many were launched on Sunday, except to say that the system will involve “multiple space vehicles.”
“This capability enables indications and warnings of threats” against high-value US systems and will “provide capabilities to search, detect, and track objects from space for timely threat detection,” the Space Force said in a statement.
In a pre-launch news conference, NRO Director Chris Scolese described the new constellation as a continuing “watchdog” that’s beyond the capability of ground-based US radar. It’s an entirely new design, he said.
The Silent Barker satellites were launched on board an Atlas V booster operated by the the United Launch Alliance, the joint operation of top defense contractors Boeing Co. and Lockheed Martin Corp. The booster was powered by one of the last Russian-made RD-180 engines in the US inventory.
Other Silent Baker launches are planned, with an intent to have the entire constellation operating by 2026.
Silent Barker is a response to efforts by China and Russia to develop systems capable of launching into orbit and taking out other satellites. In its annual threat assessment this year, the Office of the Director of National Intelligence said China has weapons intended to target US and allied satellites, and “counterspace operations will be integral” to operations by its People’s Liberation Army.
One example is China’s SJ-21 satellite, which was launched in 2021 and later successfully pulled a defunct Chinese satellite several hundred miles into a higher orbit. Another Chinese satellite, the Sijian-17, is equipped with a robotic arm that “could be used for grappling other satellites,” according to a 2022 Defense Intelligence Agency report.
In congressional testimony in March, General James Dickinson, the head of US Space Command, said the SJ-21 “could clearly serve in a counterspace role and hold our geosynchronous satellites at risk.” The SJ-21 is the type of satellite Silent Barker would track as it seeks “to detect or discover new objects,” Space Force said.
Surveillance from space augments ground sensors and “overcomes ground sensor limitations by providing timely 24-hour above-the-weather collection of satellite data,” the Space Force said.
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