Watching orbital objects: Air Force Space Fence project moves forward

Air Force Space Fence is expected to help monitor, prevent space debris

The Air Force this month said it was looking to award up to two preliminary design contracts worth up to a total of $214 million for development of the Space Fence which ultimately will help protect Earth by detecting objects in low and medium earth orbit heading our way.

The S-Band Space Fence is part of the Department of Defense's effort to track and detect space objects which can consist  of thousands of pieces of space debris as well as commercial and military satellite parts. The Space Fence will replace the current VHF Air Force Space Surveillance System built in 1961.

What's hot in space?

 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, said program manager Linda Haines in an Air Force release. 

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 uncued detection, tracking and accurate measurement of orbiting space objects. "That will allow us to reduce susceptibility to collision or attack, improve the space catalog accuracy and provide safety of flight," she stated. 

"The Space Fence is going to be the most precise radar in the space situational surveillance network," Haines said. "The S-band capability will provide the highest accuracy in detecting even the smallest space objects."

The idea then is to avoid additional space collisions, which would otherwise add to the thousands of existing objects and debris already in space. All these objects present potential threats for communication or GPS satellites or even NASA's International Space Station and the shuttle, the Air force stated.

Northrop Grumman Lockheed Martin and Raytheon got $30 million from the Air Force to start developing the first phase of a global space surveillance ground radar system in 2009.   The Air Force Space Command wants to have the Space Fence running by 2015.

The need for such technology is growing.  NASA' s Orbital Debris Program Office this month said the number of debris officially cataloged from the 2007 Chinese the Fengyun-1C spacecraft anti-satellite test alone  has now surpassed 3000. By mid-September 2010, the tally had reached 3037, of which 97% remained in Earth orbit, posing distinct hazards to hundreds of operational satellites, the office stated.

The Orbital Debris Program Office this summer said that while over 4,700 space missions have taken place worldwide since the 1960s, only 10 missions account for one-third of all cataloged objects currently in Earth orbit and of that, six of these 10 debris producing events occurred within the past 10 years. Debris from China the US and former Soviet Union spacecraft make up majority of junk floating in space. Approximately 19,000 objects larger than 10 cm are known to exist, NASA stated.

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