Space Fence – USAF’s Defense against Space Debris and Other Orbiting Objects

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From bits of destroyed satellites to discarded booster rockets, thousands of pieces of space debris litter low-earth orbit. With some zooming along at more than 17,000 mph, this extraterrestrial minefield posses a significant danger to astronauts and satellites navigating through it.

The U.S. Air Force wants to improve situational awareness and the safety of both manned and unmanned space operations by developing a new tracking system called Space Fence, and it is turning to Lockheed Martin’s Mission Systems and Sensors (MS2) for help.

The Air Force awarded MS2 a $107 million contract for the next phase of Space Fence on January 26. Under the 18-month contract, Lockheed Martin will further develop and prototype its ground-based radar system design in preparation for a final Space Fence production contract next year.

“The 2009 collision of an operational communications satellite with a defunct satellite illustrates the real risk space debris poses to both our manned and unmanned space missions,” said John Morse, director of Lockheed Martin’s Space Fence program.  “Space situational awareness is a national security priority and Space Fence will greatly enhance our ability to track and catalog orbiting objects which number in the tens of thousands.”

Space Fence will field two or three high-power, S-band ground-based radars to provide the Air Force with uncued detection, tracking, accurate measurement and cataloging of resident space objects. The geographic separation and the higher wave frequency of the new Space Fence radars will detect microsatellites and debris as small as a basketball, primarily in low-earth orbit (100 to 1,240 miles above the earth’s surface). 

The current VHF system in use since the early 1960s is located in the continental U.S. The Space Fence radars will rely on strategic sites around the world to expand global surveillance coverage into the Southern hemisphere.

Additionally, MS2’s Space Fence design will significantly reduce the time it takes operators to detect space events which could present potential threats to GPS satellites or the International Space Station.