US Air Force Space Fence Shutdown Threatens Satellite, Aerospace Industries

Lockheed Martin submitted a proposal back in March for a new “space fence” surveillance system and is awaiting a response from the U.S. Air Force which recently announced plans to shut down its current Air Force Space Surveillance System (AFSS) as a part of the U.S. Government’s budget sequestration.
Image credit: Lockheed Martin

[Satellite TODAY 08-14-13] Tracking space debris and predicting possible satellite collisions is about to become more difficult and could potentially cost billions of dollars to the satellite and aerospace industries. The U.S. Air Force has decided to shut down the “space fence” – also known as the Air Force Space Surveillance System (AFSS) – in a move that will put a major strain on existing surveillance capacity, according to Brian Weeden, a technical advisor with Secure World Foundation.

“Without the fence, there are going to be more errors in calculations. It’s going to be more difficult to predict collisions,” Weeden said during an exclusive interview with SatelliteTODAY.com.

The AFSSS, slated to be shut down by Oct. 1, 2013 because of U.S. budget sequestration, provides a warning to satellite operators about debris in the immediate proximity of their satellites. “It provides around 40 percent of all of the observation of objects in space,” Weeden said. Once the shutdown is complete, the system would not be maintained in operational status but the equipment will not be removed until a final disposition determination is made, according to a written statement from the U.S. Air Force.

While Weeden said there are other sensors in North Dakota and Florida that will provide comparable coverage, the real issue is capacity. “If you are taking 40 percent of capacity out of the system, there is less tracking capacity to go around. You’re going to focus on what’s a higher priority. This creates a shortage. What that probably means, is that a lot less debris will be tracked, which means less accurate orbits, which means harder to predict collisions,” he said.

The plan to shut down the space fence comes as a surprise to some since a recently released U.S. Air Force report revealed that satellites and the entire U.S. space enterprise system are currently at risk from increased space debris. However, the Air Force contends the shutdown will still allow maintenance of “solid space situational awareness,” through modification of other surveillance systems.

According to Weeden, larger operators such as SES, Intelsat and Hughes, which maintain a higher orbit and use different sensors, would likely not be impacted.

“The Space Fence announcement would have little to no impact on SES as its focus is on tracking objects well below the GEO belt where our satellites fly,” SES Government Solutions told SatelliteTODAY.com in a written statement.

For Hughes, “it’s too early to tell,” if the space fence shut down will have an impact on their business, according to Arunas Slekys vice president corporate marketing at Hughes. The company’s main satellites, Echostar 17 and Spaceway 3, operate in geostationary orbit.

However, other private sector companies and even the intelligence community, which operate satellites at lower orbit, would be impacted by the shutdown of the space fence, Weeden said, noting that Digital Globe and Iridium rely on lower orbit satellites. “If you’re operating a satellite in lower orbit I’d be fairly worried,” he said.

While Digital Globe and Iridium officials could not be reached for comment prior to publication, John Sheldon, principal and senior consultant with the Torridon Group, an independent space and cyberspace consulting firm, agreed with Weeden.

“Space surveillance is critical to the safe and reliable functioning of all U.S. and allied space operations, which in turn means that it is critical to operations in all other domains. Further, the Air Force’s space surveillance network also provides vital space situational awareness (SSA) data that monitors both satellite activity and space debris, helps satellite and manned space flight operators avoid catastrophic collisions, and also keeps tabs on potential and actual adversary space activities,” Sheldon said during an interview with SatelliteTODAY.com.

A serious threat?

In general, objects bigger than 1 cm cause serious damage to a satellite during an in-orbit collision; if an object larger than 10 cm hits a satellite, there’s total destruction, Weeden said. Those collisions could potentially create billions of dollars in damages, a great deal more than the $14 million the U.S. Air Force will save annually by shutting down the system, he added.

“There’s lot of debris out there, about 22,000 pieces of debris bigger than 10 cm that the U.S. military is actively tracking; most of that is in lower orbit. There’s another 500,000 objects bigger than 1 cm not current being tracked already,” Weeden said.

The U.S. remains the heaviest investor in space security, despite the U.S. Air Force plan to shut down the Space Fence.
Image credit: Euroconsult

 

The space fence has been operational since 1961 and even so, in the past two decades there have been at least 9 known collisions (not including intelligence gathering satellites which would be classified), according to Weeden. Sheldon noted that despite the age and technical drawbacks, “the current space fence is a mainstay of the Air Force’s space surveillance network.”

In the meantime, a new plan is underway to develop a new space fence, according to Air Force officials who said the government has not yet awarded the contract. Lockheed Martin officials said they are among the bidders. The company submitted its proposal in March and is awaiting a response from the Air Force. If approved soon, Lockheed officials said the new system could be in place as soon as 2017.

Under Lockheed Martin’s proposal, their new system would use S-band ground-based radars to provide the Air Force with un-cued detection, tracking and accurate measurement of space objects, primarily in low-earth orbit. The geographic separation and the higher wave frequency of the new space fence radars would allow for the detection of much smaller microsatellites and debris than current systems. Additionally, Lockheed claims its design would significantly improve the timeliness with which operators can detect space events that could present potential threats to GPS satellites or the International Space Station (ISS), Lockheed officials said.

Regardless of which company is awarded the new “space fence” contract, the Air Force is committed to providing precise positional data on orbiting objects and remaining the most accurate radar in the Space Surveillance Network, as Air Force officials said in a written statement. The system will also allow for enhanced space surveillance capabilities to detect and track orbiting objects such as commercial and military satellites, depleted space boosters and space debris. As an un-cued tracking system, it will provide evidence of satellite break-ups, collisions, or unexpected maneuvers of satellites, according to the Air Force.

“When combined with the new Joint Space Operations Center’s high performance computing environment, the new fence will truly represent a quantum leap forward in space situational awareness for the Nation,” said Gen. William Shelton, Commander, Air Force Space Command.

But until the new system is operational, Sheldon notes that opportunities exist in the commercial satellite sector. “We might see other countries, as well as the commercial sector, step up to try and provide space surveillance capabilities of their own that would supplement the capabilities of a post-October 1 Air Force space surveillance network,” Sheldon said.

Intelsat General is up to the task. “We can carry sensors that could help quickly build a space fence type of network in orbit. This could be done cost-effectively if there are still gaps in the SSA architecture as part of General Shelton’s overall plan,” said Nancy Nolting, marketing program manager at Intelsat General.

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