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JFCC-Space commander highlights need for improved space situational awareness

by Maj. Stacie Shafran
14th Air Force Public Affairs

2/24/2011 - VANDENBERG AIR FORCE BASE, Calif. (AFNS) -- Lt. Gen. Susan Helms, the commander of U.S. Strategic Command's Joint Functional Component Command for Space, returned Feb. 1 from a two-day trip to Tel-Aviv, Israel, that included a keynote speech and meetings with Israeli military leaders.

Delivering a speech at the Sixth Annual Ilan Ramon International Space Conference, held at the Fisher Institute for Air and Space Strategic Studies, General Helms emphasized the need for partnerships that improve space situational-awareness capabilities.

The conference brought the space community together to discuss technologies, programs and strategies with representatives from around the world.

As the commander of JFCC-Space, General Helms is responsible for executing continuous, integrated space operations to deliver theater and global effects in support of national and combatant commander objectives.

A segment of SSA is tracking, cataloging and screening objects in space, which helps prevent collisions or debris-caused damage. However, with more than 60 nations operating in space, it has become a congested, contested and competitive domain, according to JFCC-Space officials.

The Joint Space Operations Center, located here, is one of JFCC-Space's operations centers. The JSpOC provides operational employment of worldwide joint space forces and enables the JFCC-Space commander to integrate space power into global military operations. On a daily basis, it also performs satellite screenings on approximately 1,100 active satellites to mitigate the danger of these satellites colliding with the more than 22,000 trackable objects orbiting in space.

The framework to strengthen SSA, said General Helms, is found in the new National Space Policy, released by President Barack Obama last summer. A key element to the policy is international cooperation.

"We must partner with other nations and enterprises to achieve mutually beneficial goals, and at the top of our priorities is the development of comprehensive SSA," she said. "The National Space Policy encourages international cooperation, and in pursuit of this goal we will surely break new ground."

Among the reasons why this is important, explained General Helms, is that better SSA allows those who operate in space to make more fully informed and therefore safer decisions, while also removing the mistrust and misperceptions that can lead to mishaps and misunderstandings.

National Space Policy wording acknowledges that no single nation has the resources or geography to precisely track every object in space.

"It directs us to collaborate with other nations, the private-sector and intergovernmental organizations to improve our space situational awareness -- specifically to enhance our shared ability to rapidly detect, warn of, characterize and attribute natural and man-made disturbances to space systems," said General Helms. "There are many technical and operational details that have to be worked out before we at JFCC-Space could begin incorporating data from allies and partners, but we are definitely moving in that direction."

JFCC-Space currently has 19 formal standing SSA sharing agreements with private industry to provide advanced tailored SSA services in support of safe space-flight operations. As a result of the JSpOC's vigilance, satellite owners maneuvered their satellites 126 times last year to avoid collisions with other satellites or on-orbit debris, JSpOC officials said.

"The United States is committed to safe, responsible and peaceful uses of space," General Helms said. "Public provision of space situational awareness data through the SSA Sharing Program is evidence of the U.S. government's commitment to provide SSA data to the world, free of charge, in order to enhance safe and responsible space operations and promote transparency."

The general also paid tribute to the memory of Israel's first astronaut, Ilan Ramon, a crew member aboard the fatal Space Shuttle Columbia mission Feb. 1, 2003. Their paths crossed briefly while General Helms was preparing to return to her Air Force career from her assignment as an astronaut with NASA, and he was preparing for the Columbia mission.

"Ilan's ultimate contributions actually now extend beyond what he likely imagined," General Helms said. "Who would have thought that as a result of tragedy, there is now this very forum, where people such as me come to reach out in the interest of common goals of cooperation in space operations? It is truly an enduring legacy of which the nation of Israel can be proud."

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