Building America's 'Space Fence'

An overlooked problem in the earth's orbit may have big consequences if left unchecked.

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.

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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