Building America’s ‘Space Fence’

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The president’s just-released budget proposal for 2013 includes steep cuts in federal military spending. Requested military appropriations are about $32 billion less than this year’s total. Meanwhile, Defense officials recently unveiled a plan to cut department spending by $260 billion over the next five years.

There’s certainly a need for federal fiscal reform. But amidst this belt-tightening, genuinely vital military programs shouldn’t get axed. There are important new weapons and intelligence systems in development that hold the promise of radically improving our fighting capabilities and making the world a safer place.

Chief among them is the Air Force Space Fence Program. This program needs to stay funded and on schedule.

The Space Fence uses a system of radars to detect and track space debris in primarily low Earth orbit (LEO) — around 700 to 3,000 kilometers above the planet’s surface where the majority of space debris is located. Space Fence also provides capability beyond LEO to support cataloging of satellites and debris with other space-based sensors. This information is used by military and commercial satellites to adjust their orbits in the event they’re headed for a potential collision.

Space debris might sound like a worry better suited for science fiction — but it’s not.

Official estimates put the number of objects in Earth’s orbit in the millions, with at least 500,000 pieces over half-an-inch long. Our orbit is now cluttered with defunct satellites, spent rocket boosters, and nuts and bolts from old spacecraft. And as the number of countries with space programs has increased, so has the amount of debris.

Indeed, back in 2009 a satellite owned by communications firm Iridium collided with a Russian satellite, splintered both, and generated thousands of pieces of new space junk.

This debris is whipping around the Earth at up to 17,500 miles per hour. At that speed, even a small object can do serious damage to satellites or space stations. And NASA predicts that space vehicles now face a roughly 1-in-250 chance of a catastrophic collision with debris. That might not sound like much, but extended over 100 missions the risk of disaster hits a disturbingly high 33 percent.

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  • W. C. Taqiyya

    First, America has no space program to protect from space junk. And no, I don't call the severely handicapped ISS, a space program. Plus, did you forget that NASA's core mission is to help Muslims around the world regain their self-respect and pride? Secondly, if America stops getting involved in stupid wars, we won't need to spend hundreds of billions of dollars to bomb caves and mud huts. And maybe it's better to leave space alone for a while and let that space junk settle back to earth. Then, in a few decades, we might be responsible enough to formulate a workable plan to explore the solar system and the discipline to stick with it.

  • pyeatte

    The vast majority of stuff launched into space, orbits West to East (never East to West) at about the same speed so collisions between objects going the same direction and similar speed is not always a problem. Stuff launched in polar orbits can be a big problem. It is almost like a figure 8 racetrack when polar meets West-East. Still, the program is very important, because it only takes one unlucky collision to cause a lot of pain and expense.

  • sheervan

    "This debris is whipping around the Earth at up to 17,500 miles per hour. At that speed, even a small object can do serious damage to satellites or space stations." it is a frightened fact!

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