The New 'Space Fence' Will Protect Satellites from Earth's Halo of Garbage

A sphere of garbage is zooming along at 17,000 miles per hour around Earth, but the US Air Force is making a renewed effort to do something about it.

Image: Lockheed Martin

Ever since the Soviet Union launched Sputnik in 1957, the space around the Earth has been filling up with dead satellites, spent rocket stages, and bits and pieces of debris, which all have combined to form a sphere of garbage that's zooming along at 17,000 miles per hour. It’s an obvious hazard, and the US Air Force is taking making a renewed effort to do something about it.

It's no orbital garbage truck, but it's a start: The service has just awarded Lockheed Martin a $914 million contract to improve the way space debris is tracked to hopefully prevent future collisions. Situational awareness of the area around the Earth is important for both manned space operations. 

Lockheed Martin’s proposed solution to the space junk problem is the Space Fence, which despite its name isn’t actually a fence surrounding the planet. The Space Fence is an advanced ground-based radar tracking system designed to detect, catalog, and measure hundreds of thousands of orbiting objects.

“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, in a statement. Morse added that situational awareness in space is not just important for satellite health, it’s a matter of national security to be ably to track and catalogue the thousands upon thousands of objects orbiting the Earth.

Managing the debris field surrounding the planet has long been on the Air Force’s list of projects. The service previously awarded Lockheed Martin an 18-month, $107 million contract to develop the Space Fence, a contract that saw development of a prototype ground-based radar system leading up the final design now facing production.

With better tracking and surveillance coverage, the Space Fence—which, to be clear, is a radar net, not an actual fence—will protect against potential crashes that could not only lead to the destruction of satellites we rely on every day, but also exacerbate the space debris problem.

“Space-based technologies enable daily conveniences such as weather forecasting, banking, global communications and GPS navigation, yet everyday these critical services are being threatened by hundreds of thousands of objects orbiting Earth,” said Dale Bennett, executive vice president of Lockheed Martin’s Mission Systems and Training business. “Space Fence will locate and track these objects with more precision than ever before to help the Air Force transform space situational awareness from being reactive to predictive.”

The Space Fence system uses an array of S-band ground-based radars to detect, track, and accurately measure the movements of debris, primarily in low Earth orbit. Having many of these higher wave frequency radars spread around the globe helps track much smaller debris than existing systems can see, improving the overall picture of what’s floating around the Earth. Lockheed Martin’s Space Fence system will also improve the timeliness with which operators can detect space events, like an impending collision between satellites, or between a spent rocket stage and the International Space Station.

Once it’s up and running, the Space Fence will replace the existing Air Force Space Surveillance System, or VHF Fence, that has been up and running since the early 1960s. Construction of the Space Fence on the Kwajalein Atoll in the Marshall Islands is slated to begin in early 2015 with the goal of reaching an operational status in 2018.

If the project stays on schedule, we’ll have a better defense against a real-life Gravity situation right in time for America to start launching its own astronauts again.