By Andrea Shalal-Esa
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The U.S. military said on Tuesday it is now tracking 800 maneuverable satellites on a daily basis for possible collisions and expects to add 500 more non-maneuvering satellites by year's end.
The U.S. Air Force began upgrading its ability to predict possible collisions in space after a dead Russian military communications satellite and a commercial U.S. satellite owned by Iridium collided on February 10.
General Kevin Chilton, commander of U.S. Strategic Command, called the collision the "seminal event" in the satellite industry during the past year and said it destroyed any sense that space was so vast that collisions were highly improbable.
He said military officials had wanted to do more thorough analysis of possible collisions in space, but had lacked the resources. Before the collision, he said they were tracking less than 100 satellites a day.
"It's amazing what one collision will do to the resource spigot," he told a space conference in Omaha, Nebraska.
The crash, which was not predicted by the U.S. military or private tracking groups, underscored the vulnerability of U.S. satellites, which are used for a huge array of military and civilian purposes.
Chilton said the Air Force was tracking more than 20,000 satellites, spent rocket stages and other objects in space, up from just 14,000 a few years ago.
But he said that was just what U.S. could "see" and there were estimates that the actual number was much greater, posing a potential threat to satellites on orbit.
Air Force Lieutenant General Larry James, who heads U.S. Strategic Command's Joint Functional Component Command for Space, told reporters the Air Force met its goal for tracking possible collisions among 800 satellites that have the ability to be moved in September, ahead of an October target date.
"Our goal now is to do that conjunction assessment for all active satellites ... roughly around 1,300 satellites ... by the end of the year and provide that information to users as required," James told reporters on a teleconference during a space conference in Omaha, Nebraska.
Some of the 500 satellites still to be assessed cannot be shifted because they do not carry extra fuel that would be needed to move them once in orbit.
To increase its ability to predict possible collisions, the Air Force has been buying more computers and hiring analysts. It also works with commercial satellite operators to share data collected by their spacecraft and by U.S. government sources.
Chilton lauded the efforts, but said the work was still too reliant on Air Force analysts and needed further improvement. "We are decades behind where we should be," he said.
Victoria Samson, with the nonprofit Center for Defense Information, said the Air Force needed more trained operators to do the analyses and the goal of adding 500 more satellites to the analysis might be "somewhat optimistic." (Reporting by Andrea Shalal-Esa, editing by Alan Elsner and Chris Wilson)