Plug an address into your GPS and you expect to get the directions you need. Same applies when you pull out your cellphone: You expect the call to go through without issue. If you need cash, you hit the nearest ATM. When you want to know what the weather is, you check the forecast.
Technology is a prevalent part of life today, but few stop to think about what’s going on behind the scenes: How the call goes through, how the GPS knows exactly where you are, how the ATM can pull money from your bank account, or where all the data comes from to predict the weather.
And few realize how much of what we do every day is at risk because of objects floating around in space – objects that are in the same orbit with satellites that power our technology-rich lives.
“We are so dependent on space these days that we plug into it like a utility,” says Gen. William Shelton, commander of the U.S. Air Force Space Command.
After years of space exploration and expanding technology demands across the world, the vast area known as low earth orbit space is crowded with active satellites as well as millions of pieces of debris from dead satellites, spent rocket boosters and stray hardware pieces. Traveling at speeds upwards of 15,000 mph, that debris threatens not only commercial satellites, but also military assets that help monitor and protect nations around the world.
“With more than 60 nations operating in space today, the final frontier is far more complex than when space exploration and use started,” explains Steve Bruce, MST’s vice president of Advanced Systems. “With hundreds of thousands of objects in earth orbit, space debris and the associated risk of potential collisions threaten space-based assets and critical systems that merit protection.”
That threat is already a reality. In February 2009, an operating Iridium satellite unexpectedly collided with a dead Russian Cosmos satellite 500 miles above Siberia. Both satellites were destroyed, resulting in thousands of pieces of new debris. The chain-reaction will only continue to compound: Every time a collision occurs, more debris is created and the risk of future collisions rises even more.
To combat the risk of “space junk,” the U.S. Air Force is developing Space Fence, an advanced ground-based radar system, to improve the way objects are identified and tracked in space. On June 2, Lockheed Martin was awarded a contract to develop Space Fence and has already begun working on this next phase of the program.
Space Fence will move space situational awareness from being reactive to predictive. Currently, there are an estimated 500,000 objects floating in space, but current radars only allow the Air Force to track approximately 20,000 items the size of a basketball or larger. Space Fence will make 1.5 million observations a day to detect, track, measure and catalog items as small as a baseball – an estimated 200,000 objects. It’s a ten-fold increase in the objects being tracked.
“The first step in protecting systems is knowing which objects are of a size that can actually cause harm,” says Bruce. “We’re at an inflection point in space situational awareness, where not only the nation, but the world, will continue to be at risk if we don’t increase the ability to monitor what’s going on.”
July 16, 2014