Watch this space

How do you track space debris? By putting new tech in an old system

The computer system the U.S. Air Force was using to track satellites and space debris was 25 years old. And it was showing its age.

With nine-track reel-to-reel tapes and data storage units the size of refrigerators, it was clear that the Space Defense Operations Center, or SPADOC, had reached the end of its planned service life.

"Today, all of that data could fit on an iPhone or a thumb drive," said Sharyn McWhorter, a program manager for Raytheon Intelligence & Space, a Raytheon Technologies business.

The Air Force plans to replace it with modern systems that will simplify operations, provide greater situational awareness and help prevent collisions. But the replacement systems aren't yet operational. 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 call the new environment the SPADOC Emulation Analysis Risk Reduction system, or SPEARR.

It matches the functionality of the current system but requires less maintenance, and it 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.

The SPEARR system was deployed to Vandenberg Air Force Base in late 2019, going online January 31, 2020 for a four-week trial period. The U.S. Space Force operationally accepted it March 3, 2020, and it’s now considered the system of record for the space domain awareness mission.

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 – 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 surge 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 themselves 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, Raytheon Technologies 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, or roughly the footprint of a washer and dryer.

The Raytheon Technologies team developed 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 Technologies 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.”