Air Force whacks 52-year old space fence

New, more powerful space fence to go up by 2017 but budget issues might threaten that project

The so-called "space fence," a VHS-based system of radars and transmitters that has watched space for incoming objects since 1961 will cease to exist as of Oct. 1.  Some reports say the system has already shut down.

According to the Air Force, shuttering the fence or Air Force Space Surveillance System, which was in the process of being replaced by a much more powerful, versatile structure, will save the military some $14 million per year.  

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

From the Air Force:  "The AFSSS sites are operated under contract and the 21st SW has notified the vendor, Five Rivers Services in Colorado Springs, Colo., that it most likely will not exercise the next contract option beginning Oct. 1. By de-activating the AFSSS by Oct. 1, AFSPC would see a cost savings of approximately $14 million per year, beginning in Fiscal Year 2014.

The AFSSS is a series of three transmitters and six receivers along the 33rd parallel stretching across the southern United States. The three transmitter sites are located at Jordan Lake, Ala.; Lake Kickapoo, Texas; and Gila River, Ariz. The six receivers are located at Tattnall, Ga.; Hawkinsville, Ga.; Silver Lake, Miss.; Red River, Ark.; Elephant Butte, N.M.; and San Diego, Calif. The two receiver sites at Tattnall and Silver Lake were deactivated in April of this year."

Critics say killing off the old AFSSS system before the new space fence is erected is a mistake that will leave holes in the Air Force and other space watching agencies worldwide to track debris orbits or notice any collisions that might occur. 

[Space junk funk: The anniversary of the Cosmos/Iridium satellite crash]

On top of that the new space fence, which optimistically is set to go operational by 2017 is a constant political football and budget issue and could take way longer to complete that originally planned.

The Air Force says other sensors and radars can handle the workload till the new space fence is operational.   

Specifically 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 new 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 what the Air Force calls a "an uncued tracking system," it will provide evidence of satellite break-ups, collisions or unexpected maneuvers of satellites, the Air Force said.

 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.

 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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