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Australia enhances space surveillance capabilities with U.S. assistance

Tom Abke

Australia is strengthening its space surveillance capability with the activation of a space monitoring telescope from the United States, the development of a space-based tactical sensor system and the launch of two military intelligence satellites. The developments follow the establishment of Australia’s Defence Space Command and the government’s pledge to spend U.S. $4.4 billion on space defense.

Tracking satellites and space debris is vital for space situational awareness, according to Australia’s Defence Department, known as Defence. The agency announced September 30, 2022, that the Space Surveillance Telescope (SST) in Western Australia had achieved initial operational capability.

“In an increasingly contested and congested space environment, the Space Surveillance Telescope will provide enhanced awareness of the space domain and contribute to greater alliance cooperation,” Air Vice-Marshal Cath Roberts, Defence Space Command commander, said in a news release.

The command promotes cooperation with allies, centralizes policy development and capability planning, and works with Australia’s commercial space industry. It has personnel across the three branches of the Australian Defence Force and the space industry.

According to online magazine Space News, the U.S. Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) developed the SST to find and track objects in deep space, prevent collisions and perform imaging of objects in a geosynchronous orbit 35,400 kilometers above Earth. The SST was moved to Australia in 2017, where the government has built a telescopic dome and a dedicated 2.1-megawatt power generation plant.

The space-based tactical sensor system is being developed through a U.S. $2.7 million contract with Asension, a veteran-owned Australian company that developed the software-definable communications platform Wombat.

“If successful, this technology will enhance the Australian Defence Force’s capability in the space domain through greater situational awareness and visibility,” Australian Minister for Defence Industry Pat Conroy said in a news release.

In recent months, two military surveillance satellites were launched from the southern tip of New Zealand to enhance the intelligence capabilities of Australia and the U.S. Defence collaborated with the U.S. National Reconnaissance Office (NRO) to design and build the satellites, which were launched July 13 and August 4, according to Australia’s Space Connect magazine. The two-stage Electron rocket built by Rocket Lab, a U.S. company with operations in New Zealand, carried the satellites into space. (Pictured: A U.S. National Reconnaissance Office payload launches from New Zealand aboard a Rocket Lab Electron rocket.)

Defence announced plans for a network of satellites for communications and an enhanced space control program in its Defence Strategic Update 2020, along with investment in space situational awareness, including sensors and tracking systems. It has ongoing cooperation with the NRO, which for the past six decades has led the production and launch of U.S. surveillance satellites.

Tom Abke is a FORUM contributor reporting from Singapore.


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