Asteroid Close Call Reminds Us of Space Collision Risks

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On Friday, February 15, an asteroid half the width of a football field will whiz past Earth in a close – but safe – encounter. The asteroid will come closer than our telecommunications satellites—within 17,000 miles of Earth. Although it will pass through without incident, the near miss is a clear reminder of the risk posed to our planet and national space assets by orbiting objects.

To help gain a greater understanding of our celestial neighborhood, Lockheed Martin is partnering with NASA and the U.S. Air Force on two separate programs focused on resident space objects from asteroids to man-made space debris.

OSIRIS-REx 

In 2016, NASA will launch the Lockheed Martin-built OSIRIS-REx spacecraft on a three-year flight to an asteroid named 1999 RQ36. Once there, the spacecraft will spend a year studying the asteroid’s geology, chemistry, and other characteristics to gain a greater understanding of the origins of life on Earth.

Asteroids, like 1999 RQ36, are remnants of the early solar system and could be rich in the elemental building blocks of carbon-based terrestrial life.

Before beginning its three-year journey back to Earth in 2020, OSIRIS-REx will reach down and, in a five-second maneuver, collect gravel samples from the asteroid’s surface.

Our Space Systems business has a significant role in making this mission a success. The design of the OSIRIS-REx spacecraft draws from our flight-proven Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter. And the sample-return capsule is derived from our Stardust spacecraft which collected particles from the comet Wild 2 in 2004 and returned them safely to Earth. Our team is not only building both elements for this mission, but will also operate the vehicle from its launch to its return to Earth.

Aside from studying the origins of the solar system, OSIRIS-REx is important for another reason – 1999 RQ36, like the asteroid passing by Earth Friday, will take a path even closer to home in the year 2182 with a 1-in-1,800 chance of impact.

Dr. Dante Lauretta of the University of Arizona's Lunar and Planetary Laboratory leads the sample-return mission for OSIRIS-REx. Not only will we learn something about the distant past, Lauretta said, “OSIRIS-REx will also provide the knowledge that will guide humanity in deflecting any future asteroid that could collide with Earth.”

The OSIRIS-REx team also includes Arizona State University, KinetX, the Canadian Space Agency, NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center, Johnson Space Center, Ames Research Center, and Langley Research Center.

Space Fence 

Since 1957, more than 50 countries have sent more than 6,500 satellites into space. Today, only approximately 560 of them remain operational.

What happened to the rest? Many have fallen out of orbit and disintegrated, while others remain circling the earth, along with spent rockets, collision fragments, and even an astronaut’s toolbox. The Air Force Space Surveillance System (AFSSS) currently collects more than five million satellite detections, or observations, each month on objects larger than a basketball orbiting the planet.

Originally installed in 1961, the AFSSS is in need of replacement. Our Mission Systems and Training business is waiting on a competitive award decision this year to begin construction of the Space Fence system on Kwajalein Atoll in the Marshall Islands this fall, with operations scheduled to begin in 2017.

“The original AFSSS wasn’t designed to detect and track the hundreds of thousands of smaller, high-speed, orbiting objects that are in space today, each potentially threatening the International Space Station, future manned space flight missions and our nation’s other satellite assets,” said Steve Bruce, Lockheed Martin’s vice president for space surveillance systems programs. “With decades of experience developing powerful S-band radar systems, Lockheed Martin has proposed a scalable and affordable Space Fence solution to the Air Force that will transform their definition of space situational awareness.”

Utilizing powerful, new ground-based S-band radar technology, Space Fence will enable the U.S. Air Force to detect, track, measure and catalog orbiting objects and space debris with improved accuracy, better timeliness and increased surveillance coverage.

Using the experience gained by deploying more than 400 S-band radars worldwide, Lockheed Martin demonstrated a prototype Space Fence radar last year capable of detecting resident space objects – the Air Force’s term for orbiting space debris and other objects.

Lockheed Martin’s Space Fence team includes General Dynamics, AMEC and AT&T.

Posted February 14, 2013

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highlights
  • On Friday, February 15, an asteroid half the width of a football field will whiz past Earth in a close – but safe – encounter.
  • In 2016, NASA will launch the Lockheed Martin-built OSIRIS-REx spacecraft on a three-year flight to an asteroid named 1999 RQ36.
  • Utilizing powerful, new ground-based S-band radar technology, Space Fence will enable the U.S. Air Force to detect, track, measure and catalog orbiting objects and space debris with improved accuracy, better timeliness and increased surveillance coverage.

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