Is it a bird, a plane, a UFO, or a piece of space junk hurtling towards Earth minutes away from catastrophe? Or maybe it’s just my imagination. Hopefully, before too long we won’t have to guess what that dot is in our atmosphere.

The U.S. Air Force has awarded USD$30 million contracts to defense technology specialists Raytheon, Northrop Grumman and Lockheed Martin to create the prototype of Phase A of a new situational awareness network dubbed "Space Fence". The Space Fence system will enable the Air Force to better detect, report and track very small objects in low Earth orbit.

Replacing the current VHF Air Force Space Surveillance System built in 1961, the new Space Fence will detect thousands of pieces of "space debris" as well as commercial and military satellites in low and medium earth orbit.

Space Fence has been termed “the future of space situational awareness," by Pete Franklin, vice president for Raytheon Integrated Defense Systems' National & Theater Security Programs.

The Space Fence program will eventually comprise up to three globally positioned S-band radars ensuring there is no gap in capabilities within the Space Surveillance Network. Delivery of the first radar system is expected in 2015 as current systems reach the end of their lifespans.