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Raytheon and Lockheed Martin submit USAF Space Fence construction proposals

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November 16, 2012

An illustration depicting the amount of debris currently orbiting the earth (Image: NASA)

An illustration depicting the amount of debris currently orbiting the earth (Image: NASA)

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In response to the rapidly increasing danger from space debris, a new system called the "Space Fence" has been under development. It would replace the 50-year-old Air Force Space Surveillance System (AFSSS) with a system of highly-sensitive phased array S-band tracking radars. Prototype "Space Fence" systems able to detect and track objects ten times smaller than those that can be detected by the AFSSS have been demonstrated by Raytheon and by Lockheed Martin. The USAF will now choose between construction and installation proposals submitted from both companies for building the new US$3.3 billion (est.) Space Fence, to be operational by 2017.

Space debris has evolved in recent years from a nuisance to a major operational problem to a looming disaster. The oldest piece of space junk still in orbit is the second US satellite ever launched, Vanguard I, measuring 16.5 cm (6.5 in) in diameter and weighing 1.47 kg (3.2 lb). In orbit since 1958, its present orbital altitude varies from 645 to 3,860 km (400 to 2,400 mi), with the apogee only falling by about 100 km (60 mi) in the past 54 years. Should Vanguard I collide with another object of equal or greater mass, the resulting event would be equivalent to the explosion of about 27 kg (60 lb) of TNT.

Factor in the countless other satellites, cast-off rocket stages, and other man-made objects that have been put into orbit in the decades since, and that, in a nutshell, is the space debris problem.

Part of the AFSSS VHF orbital space radar system (Photo: USAF)

Part of the AFSSS VHF orbital space radar system (Photo: USAF)

The present system that helps space missions avoid collisions with debris, the Air Force Space Surveillance System (AFSSS), was originally developed by the US Navy, and became operational in 1961 as NAVSPASUR. AFSSS cannot detect space debris smaller than about 10 cm (4 in) in size for two reasons. First, its VHF radar operates at a wavelength of about 140 cm (55 in), and total electromagnetic scattering from particles smaller than a wavelength (Rayleigh scattering) reduces as the fourth power of the object's size (for larger objects, you would expect the scattered radiation to depend on the square of the object's size).

In addition, AFSSS is a bistatic radar, meaning that a fan, rather than a focused beam, of radio waves is transmitted upward to scatter from objects in orbit. The result is that most of the transmitter's power is lost to space. These combined effects limit the AFSSS detection threshold to about 10 cm.

The Air Force's new Space Fence changes both of these limiting design features, and in so doing makes practical the detection of centimeter-sized objects. Although such objects can still deliver a substantial punch (about 40 grams (1.4 oz) of TNT), they can be effectively defended against using Whipple shields and related technology – a Whipple shield is essentially a standoff armor plate, designed to fragment and spread out the impact of colliding objects.

The PAVE PAWS phased-array radar (Photo: Missile Defense Agency)

The PAVE PAWS phased-array radar (Photo: Missile Defense Agency)

Lockheed Martin and Raytheon have been designing and developing prototypes for the new Space Fence since before 2009. They share the same basic design of a system of two or three S-band radars, described by Space Fence program officials as "some of the largest phased array radars ever built."

Indeed, requiring a dual path for developing operational prototypes of these radars was intended to offset the extreme challenge of the task. The challenge lay not only in the improved detection limit and control of such a large phased array radar antenna, but also in the dramatic increase in the number of tracked objects and their potential interactions.

Lockheed Martin's prototype Space Fence radar system (Photo: Lockheed Martin)

Lockheed Martin's prototype Space Fence radar system (Photo: Lockheed Martin)

The day the Space Fence becomes operational, more than 500,000 objects greater than a centimeter in size will have to be tracked, compared to the 22,000 or so being tracked by the AFSSS. The computational powered to predict collisions and near-misses among this many objects is on the order of a thousand times that required by the present system.

The General Accounting Organization expects the Space Fence to reach operational capability sometime in 2017, with the first radar to be based on Kwajalein Island in the Republic of the Marshall Islands.

Sources: US Department of Defense, Raytheon, Lockheed Martin via Defense Industry Daily

Update:

This article was modified on Nov 19, 2012 in response to a reader comment pointing out the AFSSS is a "bistatic" radar, not a "bistable" radar.

About the Author
Brian Dodson From an early age Brian wanted to become a scientist. He did, earning a Ph.D. in physics and embarking on an R&D career which has recently broken the 40th anniversary. What he didn't expect was that along the way he would become a patent agent, a rocket scientist, a gourmet cook, a biotech entrepreneur, an opera tenor and a science writer.   All articles by Brian Dodson
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5 Comments

Seems like a space-roomba ("spaceba"?) would be cheaper, easier and ultimately a better solution.

More granular identification of objects doesn't remove them and we're only adding more at an accelerated rate. If your trapped under the ice in a frozen over lake it doesn't really help to identify each atom of the ice-layer if you can't break through. If you get what I'm saying...

Why not a robotic, remote controlled space junk collector that drives around the debris layer collecting all the crap? Something that looks like a bussard ramscoop with the appropriate magnetization to suck in targets would probably be a good start design-wise. It could even be self powered.

Just a thought....

Joseph Boe
16th November, 2012 @ 11:51 am PST

the best way is to deorbit all space debrises but the time and costs to do that would be incredibly high

Gaetano Marano
16th November, 2012 @ 11:52 am PST

It occurs to me that if you timed your launch correctly you could make your discarded booster swallow some debris on its way to reentry. While it would be important to dump any unused propellent first this cloud would also slow small debris particles as well.

Slowburn
16th November, 2012 @ 04:24 pm PST

AFSSS is a bistable radar? Do you mean _bistatic_ radar? (Ed. Yes, we do. The story has been corrected. Thanks for pointing this out.)

But a very nice overview of the problems and technologies anyhow. So far the range of objects that could potentially be detected by the new Space Fence initiative is between 150,000 and 250,000 objects.

The current system has between 16,000 and 30,000 objects (16,000 are the public ones which can be positively identified, the rest are either classified or more likely irregular/non-identified detections).

Now, in order to a) correlate each successive detection with existing elements in the catalog and b) perform operations on this data to provide useful services is going to need a computational system of Los Alamos proportions (if not larger).

Does anyone know if the published budget covers more than just the radar cost? I dread to think how much the back-end is going to be to develop and deploy.

SpiteOfHand
17th November, 2012 @ 05:10 am PST

Being bistatic has nothing to do with the fan beam shape of the AFSSS radar. You need a 2 dimensional antenna rather than a linear array to get a pencil beam. But it takes longer to search, because you have to go to every point in the sky.

The Pave Paws (UHF) and Cobra Dane (L band) radars are full scanning arrays and at higher frequencies, so they can find smaller things more accurately. S band is more accurate still. Locating the junk is the first step in removing it. Pushing it away with lasers may be the answer.

Captain Obvious
19th November, 2012 @ 07:43 pm PST
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