Two satellites, part of a previously classified programme, have been launched aboard a Delta 4 rocket

US launches 'neighbourhood watch' satellites

Two US satellites designed to keep an eye on other countries’ space assets have been launched on Monday aboard a Delta 4 rocket.

The satellites, part of the recently declassified Geosynchronous Space Situational Awareness Program (GSSAP), were injected into orbit about 35,970km away from the Earth, right below the geostationary ring that houses the majority of the world’s telecommunication spacecraft.

General William Shelton, head of Air Force Space Command, likened GSSAP to a "neighborhood watch program" that will keep tabs on other countries' satellites.

The programme "will bolster our ability to discern when adversaries attempt to avoid detection and to discover capabilities they may have which might be harmful to our critical assets at these higher altitudes," Shelton said during a speech in February that unveiled the once-classified programme.

The GSSAP satellites will also track orbital debris, which could pose a threat to operational spacecraft. The debris includes spent rocket stages, defunct satellites and fragments created during in-orbit collisions, all circling the Earth at enormous velocities, threatening to destroy or damage satellites in the case of impact.

Current ground-based radar systems and telescopes are unable to detect objects below 10cm in diameter. The Air Force currently tracks about 23,000 pieces of space junk.

Yesterday’s launch was originally scheduled for 23 July but was first delayed due to technical problems with ground support equipment. Subsequently, it was postponed three times because of bad weather.

The delay of the GSSAP launch means Nasa will have to wait to test launch its Orion deep space capsule until December, as it couldn’t make its recent launch window. Orion is also scheduled to be lifted off by a Delta 4 rocket.

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