Construction begins on Space Fence radar system

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Construction has begun on the new Space Fence that will track objects in orbit (Image: Lockheed Martin)

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Ground was broken at the future six-acre (2.4-hectare) site of the new Space Fence radar system in a special ceremony last month on Kwajalein Atoll in the Marshall Islands. The ceremony marked the official start of construction of the system that will replace the Air Force Space Surveillance System (AFSSS) in tracking objects in orbit, including commercial and military satellites and debris from collisions.

Beating out Raytheon, Lockheed Martin was awarded a US$914,699,474 contract on June 2 of last year by the US Air Force to develop its Space Fence system design and deliver the first site, consisting of a radar and Space Fence operations center. In addition to the radar arrays and on-site operations center, the Kwajalein installation will also include an annex to the island's current power plant to ensure continuous operation.

The new system will replace the AFSSS, which began operations in 1961 and ceased operations in September 2013. It used a VHF radar system capable of detecting objects down to about 75 cm (29.5 in) in size, while the higher wave frequency (or shorter wavelength) of the S-band ground-based radars to be used in the new Space Fence will allow it to detect much smaller objects.

"Previously, the Air Force could only track and identify items the size of a basketball," said Dana Whalley, the Space Fence program manager, who is stationed at Hanscom AFB, Mass. "With the new system, we'll be able to identify items down to the size of a softball. This will significantly increase our capability to provide predictive and actionable space situational awareness for the nation."

The new system will also be capable of tracking a larger number of objects and enable more timely warnings of potential collisions.

"The number of small satellites and satellite operators around the world is skyrocketing, rapidly crowding an environment already congested by the more than 17,000 pieces of space debris that we are able to track today," said Steve Bruce, vice president for Advanced Systems at Lockheed Martin’s Mission Systems and Training business. "By comparison, when it comes online in 2018, Space Fence will enable the Air Force to locate and track hundreds of thousands of objects orbiting Earth with more precision than ever before to help reduce the potential for collisions with our critical space-based infrastructure."

The contract awarded to Lockheed Martin also includes an option for the procurement of a second radar site in Western Australia. If the company exercises all options, the contract is estimated to add up to more than $1.5 billion over an eight-year period.

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