The saga of Phobos-Grunt has captivated the space community since it became trapped in its parking orbit around the Earth in early November. Attention has been given to events surrounding attempts to rescue the mission and determine its operational state. With options to rescue the craft exhausted, attention is now focused on its reentry in January 2012 and what effect, if any, that reentry will have. However, hidden in the saga that has played out for over a month is the little recognized fact that the United States, through Strategic Command (USSTRATCOM), has been providing orbital data on Phobos-Grunt and predictions for its reentry to a foreign country all along.
January 4, 2010 formally inaugurated USSTRATCOM’s duty to provide space situational awareness (SSA) information and analysis to government and commercial space operators in the U.S. and around the world. The program started as the pilot Commercial and Foreign Entities (CFE) program in 2004 under U.S. Space Command to ascertain the viability and appeal of sharing SSA products and services with satellite owners and operators, both foreign and domestic. The CFE pilot program transitioned to the Space Situational Awareness Sharing Program in 2009 shortly after the February 2009 collision between Iridium 33 and Cosmos 2251 over Siberia. The SSA Sharing Program moved from the U.S. Space Command’s authority to the Joint Functional Component Command for Space (JFCC‐SPACE) under USSTRATCOM. JFFC-SPACE performs this mission via its Joint Space Operations Center (JSpOC), which utilizes the Space Surveillance Network to track over 21,000 objects in space.
Since its formal inception, the SSA Sharing Program has provided orbital data and notices to several foreign and domestic customers, which has led to numerous maneuvers to avoid space debris, including several potential conjunctions of orbital space debris with the International Space Station. The SSA Sharing Program also has provided orbital tracking data and reentry predictions for high-profile orbital space debris reentries in 2011, including the Upper Atmospheric Research Satellite (UARS) and ROSAT. When it became apparent that Phobos-Grunt was trapped in its parking orbit, JSpOC began to track the spacecraft and provide daily orbital element data to the Russian Federal Space Agency. As the spacecraft begins the reentry chapter of this saga, the information and analysis provided by the SSA Sharing Program will contribute to the predictions of when and where it will fall.
The SSA Program is a vital tool for maintaining the safety of outer space activities. Aside from its utility in protecting space-based assets from harm, the program demonstrates that transparency in international relations can be achieved.While this is not the end-all for Space Situational Awareness, it is a great beginning.