AMU Careers & Learning Editor's Pick Original Space

An Urgent Mission Currently Waits for the New Space Force

By Mark Armstrong
Alumnus, American Military University

Whatever the origin or wisdom of the notion to start up a new military force focused on space operations, there is momentum in this direction. The Department of Defense (DoD) announced that the United States Space Command was re-formed as one of the DoD’s unified commands last December.

At the Space Symposium in Colorado, the most current plans to create the U.S. Space Force as a command within the Air Force were announced by Secretary of the Air Force Heather Wilson. If Congressional approval and $72 million in first-year funding is approved, the first steps will begin with the 2020 budget.

Yet for many, the key question hasn’t been answered: What’s the point of creating a Space Force? Is this just a bureaucratic shuffle and a new four-star command, or will the new command address new missions?

One potential mission is directly in line with the most important tasks appropriate for military space operations: planetary defense and space situational awareness.

The NEOCam Spacecraft and the Surveillance of Near-Earth Objects

The California Institute of Technology Jet Propulsion Lab’s Near-Earth Object Camera (NEOCam) mission has been in development since 2006, and it has reached a critical stage with a probable $40 million shortfall in funding from NASA to continue preparing the mission for launch in 2024. The NEOCam spacecraft would be parked at the equilibrium point between the Earth and Sun (known as Legrangian Point 1), in the perfect spot to identify and track the thousands of near-Earth asteroids that could potentially strike the Earth and cause a disaster.

The spacecraft would face away from the Sun and toward the Earth. It would be the most powerful instrument put into service to protect the Earth to date, and plans call for the NEOCam to complete the survey of NEOs that could cause massive destruction.

NEOCam’s primary instrument was successfully tested in 2013; it is a 20-inch infrared telescope with a large 11-degree field of view. NEOs as small as about 100 feet in diameter could be identified and tracked with this equipment. Ultimately, the program’s goals include detection of a million objects in the asteroid belt in addition to cataloging NEOs.

In 2005, NASA was tasked with the identification and tracking of NEOs, as well as determining their projected orbits and the potential for each NEO to strike the Earth. Congress specifically approved the ‘‘George E. Brown, Jr. Near-Earth Object Survey Act’’ and noted these findings:

“Near-Earth objects pose a serious and credible threat to humankind, as many scientists believe that a major asteroid or comet was responsible for the mass extinction of the majority of the Earth’s species, including the dinosaurs, nearly 65,000,000 years ago…Similar objects have struck the Earth or passed through the Earth’s atmosphere several times in the Earth’s history and pose a similar threat in the future…Several such near-Earth objects have only been discovered within days of the objects’ closest approach to Earth, and recent discoveries of such large objects indicate that many large near-Earth objects remain undiscovered…The efforts taken to date by NASA for detecting and characterizing the hazards of near-Earth objects are not sufficient to fully determine the threat posed by such objects to cause widespread destruction and loss of life.”

The goal set forth in the Act was to find 90% of NEOs before 2020. Using ground-based instruments, over 7,000 NEOs have been identified, but NASA estimates there are at least twice as many more that remain unidentified random threats.

As a result, NASA is far behind the goals set forth by Congress in 2005. In 2016, the White House National Science and Technology Council published a report that estimated that about 70% of NEOs 140 meters or more in diameter have not been found. The report suggested there would be more than 2,000 such massive NEOs that potentially pose a threat to the Earth.

NEOs Can Cause Massive Damage to Earth and Its Population

How much damage would a NEO impact cause? Business Insider presented a study in cartoon form to take part in World Asteroid Day, and reported that “One roughly the size of a football field could obliterate New York, causing a 7.7-magnitude earthquake that might be felt than 1,000 miles away.”

In fact, on the same day in 2013 that a Congressional hearing discussed planetary defense, an asteroid the size of a six-story building exploded in the air over the Russian city of Chelyabinsk with the power of a nuclear explosion. About 1,200 people were treated for injuries. It could have been much worse.

NASAs Chief Administrator, Jim Bridenstine, related that the Chelyabinsk asteroid strike happened only a month after he was sworn in as a Congressional Representative. In comments to the Planetary Defense Conference in April, he said, “We have to make sure that people understand that this is not about Hollywood, it’s not about movies…This is about ultimately protecting the only planet we know right now to host life, and that is the planet Earth.”

As Dr. Amy Mainzer, the Principal Investigator of the NEOCam mission explained: “Everyone wants to know about asteroids hitting the Earth; NEOCam is designed to tackle this issue. We expect that NEOCam will discover about ten times more asteroids than are currently known, plus millions of asteroids in the main belt between Mars and Jupiter. By conducting a comprehensive asteroid survey, NEOCam will address three needs: planetary defense, understanding the origins and evolution of our solar system, and finding new destinations for future exploration.”

Ground-based instruments tasked with monitoring Near-Earth Objects are not ideal; attempting infrared observations through the atmosphere is much more difficult.

To date, only 30% of NEOs have been surveyed. The National Research Council’s 2010 Defending Planet Earth report concluded that space-based observations offered distinct advantages:

  • A space-based telescope can search for NEOs whose orbits are largely inside Earth’s orbit. These objects are difficult to find using a ground-based telescope, as observations risk interference from the Sun when pointing to the areas of the sky being searched.
  • Thermal-infrared observations are immune to the bias affecting the detection of low-albedo objects in visible or near-infrared light, by observing the thermal signal from the full image of the NEO, providing more accurate albedo measurements.
  • Space-based searches can be conducted above Earth’s atmosphere, eliminating the need to calibrate the effects introduced by the atmosphere on the light from a NEO.

The study concluded that a combination of Earth-surface and space-based instruments like the NEOCam would be the most efficient means to complete the NEO survey in a more timely manner.

Securing Adequate Funding for NEOCam Is a Problem

Unfortunately, NASA’s structure may be an issue for planetary defense. Each proposal put forward must compete for funding as part of NASA’s Discovery program.

With the first of NASA’s priorities continuing to be “Fostering New Discoveries and Expanding Human Knowledge,” dramatic missions to explore Mars and the outer reaches of the solar system have taken the bulk of funding available. Among the many projects submitted for development and launch, NEOCam has been passed over four times.

Planetary defense has experienced somewhat more priority for funding with $150 million proposed for 2019. A good deal of that budget will fund a project called DART, which will test the effectiveness of deflecting a NEO by impacting the asteroid Didymos.

Proponents of planetary defense have grown impatient. That includes former astronaut Ed Lu, who co-founded the B612 foundation to detect NEOs with a space telescope called Sentinel.

With NASA developing plans to return to the Moon in 2024, other priorities like planetary defense may continue to fall by the wayside. For the current budget cycle, NEOCam is on a path to failure due to the lack of continuous funding.

At best, NEOCam advocates can hold on and hope for greater funding in the next few years. But the budget competition will be fierce.

A New Space Force Could Assist NEOCam Funding to Ensure Military Readiness

Stanford Professor Roger Blandford suggested in Space News that new guidance from Congress directing the National Research Council to address planetary defense would push the issue forward. The NRC could review various options, including ground- or space-based proposed instruments or possible international cooperation efforts.

But now there is a new element – the Space Force. While a Space Force as a separate command under the Air Force may not win the approval of Congress, current discussion in the House Appropriations Committee indicate there is support for full funding for U.S. Space Command and the Space Development Agency – a total amount of $234 million. Clearly, there is bipartisan recognition of the importance of military space operations, readiness and new technology.

The National Security Space Strategy of the U.S. identifies critical national priorities for the Department of Defense, which are naturally centered on stability and ensuring access for U.S. operations and assets. If missions determined to be the responsibility of the Department of Defense remain unchanged, those critics who see no purpose for a new Space Force may win the current war of words.

After all, the U.S. Strategic Command, the Air Force Space Command, and the Army Space and Missile Defense Command are currently carrying out day-to-day space operations and maintaining space situational awareness while operating dozens of reconnaissance, communications, and GPS satellites. Dave Deptula in Forbes expressed the widely held opinion that the Space Force makes no sense without a real mission.

So here’s a coincidence: a vital mission of planetary defense that may fall by the wayside among numerous missions competing for NASA funding, which is occurring at the same time that the Trump administration is proposing both a return to the Moon and new military operations that are focused on military space operations. While the cost for NEOCam may be too much for NASA, the DoD may be able to re-prioritize funds to become a partner in NEOCam and potentially assume a role in operating the mission. Perhaps the NEOCam could find itself operational in about five years and designated as Space Force-1 (SF-1).

About the Author

Mark Armstrong is a Senior Satellite Network Controller for the U.S. Army. He is a 2017 graduate of the master’s degree in space studies program at American Military University and the undergraduate business administration program at California State University, Sacramento. Mark is also a member of the National Space Society and Army Space Professional Association.

Wes O'Donnell

Wes O’Donnell is an Army and Air Force veteran and writer covering military and tech topics. As a sought-after professional speaker, Wes has presented at U.S. Air Force Academy, Fortune 500 companies, and TEDx, covering trending topics from data visualization to leadership and veterans’ advocacy. As a filmmaker, he directed the award-winning short film, “Memorial Day.”

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