Air Force sets first post in ambitious Space Fence project

The new Space Fence is expected to help detect space debris

The US Air Force this week said it will base the first Space Fence radar post on Kwajalein Island in the Republic of the Marshall Islands with the site planned to be operational by 2017.

The Space Fence is part of the Department of Defense's effort to better track and detect space objects which can consist of thousands of pieces of space debris as well as commercial and military satellite parts.  Approximately 19,000 objects larger than 10 cm are known to exist, according to NASA.  The Space Fence will replace the current VHF Air Force Space Surveillance System built in 1961.

The Space Fence will use multiple S-band ground-based radars -- the exact number will depend on operational performance and design considerations -- that will permit detection, tracking and accurate measurement of orbiting space objects.  The idea is that the Space Fence is going to be the most precise radar in the space situational surveillance network and the S-band capability will provide the highest accuracy in detecting even the smallest space objects, the Air Force stated.  The Fence will have greater sensitivity, allowing it to detect, track and measure an object the size of a softball orbiting more than 1,200 miles in space. Because it is an uncued tracking system, it will provide evidence of satellite break-ups, collisions or unexpected maneuvers of satellites, the Air Force said.

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The Space Fence program, which will ultimately cost more than $3.5 billion, will be made up of a system of geographically dispersed ground-based sensors to provide timely assessment of space events.

"The Space Fence will provide precise positional data on orbiting objects and will be the most accurate radar in the Space Surveillance Network. Space Fence data will be fed to the Joint Space Operations Center at Vandenberg Air Force Base, Calif. Data from the Space Fence radar will be integrated with other Space Surveillance Network data to provide a comprehensive space situational awareness and integrated space picture," the Air Force said.

Background: 8 surprising hunks of space gear that returned to Earth

Construction is expected to begin September 2013 and is planned to take 48 months to complete construction and testing, the Air Force said.

Lockheed Martin reported earlier this year that a prototype system it is developing to track all manner of space debris  is now tracking actual orbiting space objects. Raytheon and others are involved in that Space Fence development process. 

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