Right now, millions of objects are whizzing around Earth faster than speeding bullets. Much of this is celestial garbage – remnants of past missions and cosmic collisions that have taken place over half a century.
Dead satellites. Spent rocket stages. Astronauts’ long-lost equipment.
To keep watch over this vast orbiting junkyard, the Air Force has awarded a $914.7 million contract to Lockheed Martin Corp. to develop a surveillance system that will provide a continuous watch over what’s up there.
The system will enable the U.S. government to detect and track objects as they circle the globe, particularly the most congested areas of space.
The clouds of debris hurtle through the cosmos at up to 17,500 mph. At that speed, even a small piece of junk is a menace to the International Space Station and satellites that are fundamental to the economy, military and our modern way of life.
Currently, every launch – whether it’s of astronauts, spy satellites or digital television satellites – needs to be carefully synchronized so it isn’t swiftly obliterated by the minefield of orbiting debris.
The global community has discussed cleanup measures in the past. But before a solution is proposed, experts need to understand what exactly is orbiting Earth and the danger it poses.
Air Force officials say the new surveillance system from Lockheed, dubbed “Space Fence,” is a step in that direction.
“Previously, the Air Force could only track and identify items the size of a basketball,” said Dana Whalley, the government’s program manager. “With the new system, we’ll be able to identify items down to the size of a softball. This will significantly increase our capability.”
Researchers have cataloged more than 23,000 items that are bigger than a basketball, but just a scant 1,100 are functioning spacecraft. NASA estimates there are many millions of pieces of debris so small that they can’t be tracked.
Danger warnings are everywhere. Astronauts have had to take refuge in the escape capsules aboard the space station for fear of threatening debris. The space shuttle often returned from orbit with nicks cut into it by passing paint flecks or other fragments.
A 2007 study from the National Research Council showed that the amount of space junk is at a “tipping point.”
That same year, China blasted a missile at an old weather satellite and destroyed it – at the same time adding more than 3,000 pieces of debris. In 2009, a defunct Russian satellite collided with and destroyed a functioning U.S. commercial satellite, creating an additional 2,000 scraps of space trash.
A big concern is that the debris will continue smashing into one another and eventually set off a domino effect that results in a “collision cascade.” That sort of incident was depicted in the Oscar-winning motion picture “Gravity.”
“I don’t want to say that a Hollywood movie is a reflection of reality,” Whalley said. “But they did do a good job of showing what a debris field looks like as it moves through space.”
The Space Fence will replace the current Space Surveillance Network system, a worldwide network of 25 space surveillance sensors – radar and optical telescopes. The aging system has been spotting objects since 1957, when the Soviet Union launched Sputnik, triggering the space race.
Space Fence will use a higher wavelength frequency capable of detecting small objects in low-Earth orbit. It provides continuous radar pulses, essentially forming a “fence” that detects, tracks and determines orbits of objects as they pass through the pulse field.