SILENTBARKER To Be U.S. “Watchdog” in Geosynchronous Orbit

SILENTBARKER To Be U.S. “Watchdog” in Geosynchronous Orbit

Weather permitting, tomorrow the United States will launch the first satellites in a new system to keep track of what is happening in geosynchronous orbit. How many satellites are aboard the United Launch Alliance’s Atlas V rocket is a secret as is the total number of satellites that will comprise the SILENTBARKER system, but the National Reconnaissance Office and the U.S. Space Force are publicly sharing some information to make the point to our adversaries that a state-of-the-art “watchdog” is on duty up there. [UPDATE: The launch has been postponed because of Tropical Storm Idalia.]

NRO Director Chris Scolese told reporters today that the SILENTBARKER system will provide “unprecedented” coverage in geosynchronous orbit “so we can understand the intentions of other countries, to see what they’re doing in the GEO belt, to see if there’s any indications of threats or just normal operations.”

ULA President and CEO Tory Bruno, U.S. Space Force Lt. Gen. Michael Guetlein (Commander, Space Systems Command), and NRO Director Chris Scolese at a pre-launch press conference for SILENTBARKER, August 28, 2023. Screengrab.

Press conferences about NRO space launches are extremely rare. NRO builds and operates the nation’s most classified intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR) satellites. One of the 18 members of the Intelligence Community, NRO’s very existence was classified until 1992. The 2019 reestablishment of U.S. Space Command and creation of U.S. Space Force (USSF) as a separate military service (instead of embedded in the Air Force) seems to have brought NRO and DOD’s space activities even closer together.

Scolese and Lt. Gen. Michael Guetlein, Commander of  USSF’s Space Systems Command, both heralded their strong partnership today. Guetlein, whose career includes assignments both at USSF’s predecessor, Air Force Space Command, and NRO, called the launch tomorrow “a historic day.”

“Tomorrow actually is going to be a very historic day. If you look at 2019, we stood up the United States Space Force because space was becoming not only congested, but worse, contested. And one of the ways that we’re getting after space in this contested environment is through partnerships. Our partnership with our external stakeholders is absolutely critical to our success. And most importantly, our number one partner is the NRO.”

SILENTBARKER is a joint NRO/USSF satellite system that will be in geosynchronous orbit to monitor other satellites in geosynchronous orbit. Tomorrow’s launch is of “multiple” satellites and at least one more launch is planned, but Scolese would not divulge specifics. Full operational capability is expected in 2026.

Geosynchronous orbit is at 35,800 kilometers (22,250 miles) above Earth’s surface where a satellite’s orbit matches the rotation of the Earth. There are many geosynchronous orbits including geostationary orbit above the equator where a satellite maintains a fixed position relative to a point on Earth. Usually the term GEO refers to geostationary orbit and GSO refers to all the geosynchronous orbits, but in today’s press conference the terms were used interchangeably. NRO clarified to that geosynchronous — not just geostationary — was meant.

“The SILENTBARKER/NROL-107 patch: The Delta shape is pointing the way to better space domain knowledge. The fox represents the cunning nature of the IC and DoD that gives our warfighters the edge against America’s adversaries. The fox in motion represents agile operations in the space domain. The combined moon and stars represent the commitment of the IC and DoD to be always on guard to protect American interests and freedom. The moon is a waxing crescent, symbolizing we are not done and there is still work ahead of us. The two deltas symbolize the partnership between the U.S. Space Force and the NRO.” Credit: NRO

Guetlein stressed that SILENTBARKER will be a game-changer because now we will be able to “maintain custody” of a satellite, tracking wherever it goes regardless of weather or day/night conditions.

“Our ground-based radars are pretty exquisite, but they pretty much can see only about a basketball-sized object in space. And because of the challenges of day/night, weather, it gets extremely hard to maintain custody of those objects” as they change positions.  “So by actually moving the sensor into orbit with those objects we can actually not only detect smaller objects, but maintain custody of them,” tracking their movements to determine if they pose a threat.

Guetlein said data acquired from SILENTBARKER will go into the catalog of space objects maintained by Space Operations Command and available for free to commercial and international partners. “This data will allow us to have a better defined space catalog of the objects in geosynchronous orbit and of what the behavior of those objects is.”

Scolese called SILENTBARKER a “watchdog” in geosynchronous orbit that will determine “if something is going on that is unexpected or shouldn’t be going on that could potentially represent a threat to a high value asset, either ours or one of our allies.”

The Space-Based Surveillance System (SBSS) and the Geosynchronous Space Situational Awareness Program (GSSAP) also monitor satellites in space from space, but SILENTBARKER apparently has better capabilities.

China’s operations of its Shijian-21 satellite is one of the events causing concern. China described it as a test of a space tug to remove orbital debris, but it sparked concerns about how it might be used against U.S. satellites. Russia’s ejection of sub-satellites in the vicinity of U.S. national security satellites is another.

As to why they are sharing so much information about SILENTBARKER, Guetlein pointed out that deterrence is part of U.S. strategy.

“A huge part of the Space Force mission is not only to defend, but to deter aggression. A huge element of deterrence is the ability for the adversary to know what we can and cannot see. So we actually want our competitors to know that we have eyes in GEO and that we can see what’s happening in GEO and not only are we can going to maintain custody and be able to detect what’s going on in GEO, but we’ll have indications and warnings to know there’s something out of the normal occurring, and that goes a long way towards deterrence.”

Precisely where the SILENTBARKER satellites are headed remains a secret, but the launch tomorrow is of ULA’s “bruiser” Atlas V configuration with five strap-on Solid Rocket Boosters.  Once they and the first stage complete their mission the Centaur upper stage will perform “a whole series of very complex orbital maneuvers to put this payload directly injected into a high energy orbit,” ULA President and CEO Tory Bruno explained.  “My rocket scientists love this mission because it is what Atlas V was designed to do.”  ULA will livestream the launch. The rocket will “leap” off the pad, Bruno said, so pay close attention.

The one-hour launch window opens at 8:34 am ET with a weather forecast of 80 percent “go.” That changes dramatically overnight to only 20 percent “go” because of impending hurricane Idalia, expected to hit Florida’s west coast mid-week. [UPDATE: The launch was postponed shortly after this article was posted. ULA said the postponement was out of “an abundance of caution for personnel safety.” A new date is TBD.]

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