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.
Orbital debris is (nearly) forever, and threatens to render near-Earth space unusable, and all but impassible. The 2007 Chinese anti-satellite test and an accidental collision between two communications satellites in 2009 highlighted the need to study orbital collisions of modern satellites. The NASA Standard Breakup Model, based on hypervelocity collision studies of 1960s-era satellites, fails to accurately describe collisions of modern satellites, owing to advances made in materials and construction. To address this problem, NASA is updating the SBM by building and destroying a modern dummy satellite called DebriSat.
Boeing has filed a patent for a method of disposing of dead satellites and other debris orbiting the earth
by hitting them with a puff of gas. The method, which is still at the conceptual stage, is designed to slow down satellites, forcing them to re-enter the atmosphere without sending up more space junk that itself will need disposing of.
Small-scale satellites show a lot promise, but unless they have equally small-scale thrusters they’re pretty limited in what they can do. Unfortunately conventional thrusters are heavy and take up a lot of valuable space, but a penny-sized rocket engine developed at MIT holds the prospect of not only increasing the capabilities of miniature satellites, but of combating space junk as well.
NASA currently monitors approximately 17,000 pieces of space junk
that are orbiting the earth at extremely high speeds. These odds and ends consist of things like dead satellites, spent rocket stages and parts that have broken off of spacecraft. As the amount of junk increases, it becomes increasingly difficult for functioning satellites to avoid colliding with it. When collisions do occur, the satellite is often destroyed, with the resulting debris further adding to the problem. Scientists from Swiss research institute EPFL, however, have decided that enough is enough – they’re currently developing a small satellite known as CleanSpace One, which will be tasked with grappling expired satellites and pulling them back to Earth.
If you've been looking to the skies in the hope of catching a glimpse of the doomed UARS satellite
before it plummeted to the Earth's surface ... you missed it. NASA is now reporting that the decommissioned satellite fell back to Earth sometime between 11:23 p.m. EDT Friday, Sept. 23 and 1:09 a.m. EDT Sept. 24, making its final dive eastwards over Canada, Africa and finally crashing in the Pacific Ocean. The exact location of the crash has not been officially determined but there are reports that some debris made landfall near Calgary in Canada. NASA says that it is not aware of any reports of injury or property damage.
The U.S. Air Force’s Space Fence
program has entered its next phase with the three companies originally awarded US$30 million contracts to develop a Space Fence
now cut back to two. Northrop Grumman
is now out of the project, leaving Lockheed Martin
, which have each been awarded a US$107 million dollar follow-on contract to further develop and prototype their systems in preparation for a final Space Fence production contract next year. As might be easy to misconstrue from its name, the Space Fence isn’t designed as a defense against intergalactic interlopers, but is intended to detect and track the increasing amount of space junk
There are tens of thousands of pieces of space debris currently orbiting the Earth which pose a potential hazard to satellites, the International Space Station and other space hardware. Since the early 1960s, the existing Air Force Space Surveillance System, also known as the VHF or Space Fence
, has been used to track orbital objects passing over America. Proposals are now being taken for the next phase of a new Space Fence that will better detect, report and track orbiting space junk as well as commercial and military satellites.
We’ve looked at the problem of orbiting space junk
before and the threat it poses to the future of space exploration and the use of satellites. Now scientists have devised a miniature “nanosatellite” fitted with a “solar sail
” that can be used on satellites or upper stage launch vehicles. Once the equipment that has reached the end of its mission, the solar sails can be deployed to successfully achieve de-orbit. While it won’t cut the amount of debris already whizzing around above our heads, it will help stop future missions adding to the problem.
Is it a bird, a plane, a UFO, or a piece of space junk hurtling towards Earth minutes away from catastrophe? Hopefully, before too long we won’t have to guess. The U.S. Air Force has awarded USD$30 million contracts to defense technology specialists Raytheon, Northrop Grumman and Lockheed Martin to help create the prototype 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.