Watch this space

How do you track space debris? By running an old system with new tech

The SPADOC system provides satellite orbit and threat information to satellite owners and operators. Much of what is tracked is man-made – from large satellites to screwdrivers and gloves left in space during shuttle missions.

The U.S. Air Force tracks orbiting satellites and space debris with a computer system that is 25 years old. And it's showing its age.

"The system uses nine-track, reel-to-reel tapes and refrigerator-sized, external, data-storage units," said Sharyn McWhorter, a Raytheon program manager. "Today, all of that data could fit on an iPhone or a thumb drive."

The Space Defense Operations Center, or SPADOC, has reached the end of its planned service life. The Air Force plans to replace it with modern systems that will simplify operations, provide greater situational awareness and enhance prevention of collisions. However, the replacement systems are not yet operational, so the modernized SPEARR system reduces risk by extending SPADOC’s service life.

To keep the current system operating, Raytheon and the Air Force Life Cycle Management Center emulated SPADOC's hardware using today's computer hardware and software. They're calling this new environment the SPADOC Emulation Analysis Risk Reduction system, or SPEARR. It has the same functionality of the current system, but requires less maintenance.

SPEARR will be part of a system-of-systems that maintains the catalog of space objects and processes information on space events that may affect U.S. or other space systems.

Raytheon successfully demonstrated a proof-of-concept system to Air Force leaders at Peterson Air Force Base in Colorado Springs, Colorado, in January. The next step is to move the system to Vandenberg Air Force Base near Lompoc, California, location of the legacy SPADOC system.

"We'd like to get it out there as soon as possible, because the system isn't getting any younger and the user community is looking for this advancement," McWhorter said.

The Air Force established SPADOC in the 1990s to be a single center for all command, control, communications and data processing for space defense. Much of what is tracked are man-made objects in space – from large satellites to screwdrivers and gloves left in space during manned missions.

NASA and the Air Force estimate there are more than 170 million pieces of space debris orbiting the Earth, all traveling at about 17,000 mph. With the upsurge of space commerce and exploration, more is coming. SPEARR will assume the SPADOC mission to receive, correlate, process and communicate necessary space operations information to decision makers, external control centers, and other agencies.

"SPADOC assists decision-makers with the information they need to ensure that any launched space vehicle doesn't collide with anything else in space, including other manned space vehicles," McWhorter said. "The decision-makers can decide how they will safely launch and deconflict."

While the software is perfectly able to track satellites and other man-made objects orbiting Earth, the computers are relics. Just finding replacements parts has become a challenge.

"We've got a lot of smart people who have kept the system running over the years," said Jason Schreuder, SPEARR technical lead. "At some point, the Defense Reutilization and Marketing Office won't have the parts anymore, and we certainly can't buy them off of eBay."

The system is no longer spread out over 900 cubic feet of aging, analog computer equipment in 15 racks. It now fits in two servers that occupy six cubic feet.

"By this summer, the team at Peterson will have reduced something the size of a two-bedroom apartment down to the footprint of a washing machine and dryer," wrote Benjamin Newell from the 66th Air Base Group public affairs office on the Hanscom Air Force Base website.

The Raytheon team is in the process of developing a detailed transition-to-operations plan to ensure continuity while moving from the legacy equipment to SPEARR.

“This was really a collaborative effort,” said Dave Fuino, Raytheon NISSC program director. “Within just a few months, we brought together a team, developed the technology to modernize it, got it on contract and held a series of demos to prove it worked.”

Published On: 07/28/2019
Last Updated: 08/09/2019