Building America’s ‘Space Fence’

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Earth’s orbit has gotten so crowded that NASA projects space debris collisions to occur at least once every four to five years. And recently there have been some very close calls.

Over the span of just a couple weeks last summer, orbital junk headed for the International Space Station was expected to pass so close that the six astronauts aboard had to take emergency shelter in Russian space capsules. In one instance, the debris zoomed past less than 900 feet away.

If a commercial satellite gets taken down or compromised by colliding with space debris, the daily lives of tens of millions of Americans could get disrupted. Think of all the devices you use that depend on signals from Earth’s orbit — that GPS system, your iPhone, even the radio in your car.

These devices stop working if their associated satellites get damaged.

More importantly, American military operations routinely rely on satellite technology to gain the upper hand in battle. Soldiers use satellite radios to communicate information that is critical to the success of missions and to their safety and survival. In today’s world, in which we rely increasingly on special operations forces operating in smaller numbers and at greater distances from supporting forces, dependable communications are paramount. If a satellite goes down from a collision, service members can get killed.

The United States does have a space surveillance system in operation. But it has limited capacity and capability, with several systems nearing their end-of-life. So starting in 2009, defense officials have been working with private contractors to build a replacement system. Development has gone smoothly. And the new Space Fence is set to achieve initial operating capability no later than 2017.

This project is expected to increase the number of objects tracked every day by tenfold — from 20,000 currently to around 200,000. It will be powerful enough to detect objects that are just four-inches small, peer even deeper into space, and employ state-of-the-art algorithms to better project the paths of potentially dangerous debris.

Federal budget officials have targeted the military for deep cuts over the next few years. It’s vital that during this push, the Space Fence program goes unscathed. It needs to be well-funded and stay on schedule. This technology represents a major upgrade over existing programs. And it will ensure the safety of our soldiers on the battlefield and the smooth operations in the daily lives of millions of American civilians.

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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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