The U.S. Air Force’s Space Fence program has entered its next phase with the three companies originally awarded US$30 million contracts to develop a Space Fence now cut back to two. Northrop Grumman is now out of the project, leaving Lockheed Martin and Raytheon, which have each been awarded a US$107 million dollar follow-on contract to further develop and prototype their systems in preparation for a final Space Fence production contract next year. As might be easy to misconstrue from its name, the Space Fence isn’t designed as a defense against intergalactic interlopers, but is intended to detect and track the increasing amount of space junk orbiting Earth.

The Space Fence will replace the existing Air Force Space Surveillance System, or VHF fence, which has been in service since the early 1960s. By using radars with much higher frequency, the updated Space Fence will be able to detect much smaller microsatellites and debris than is possible with the current systems.

"That will allow us to reduce susceptibility to collision or attack, improve the space catalog accuracy and provide enhanced space flight safety," said Linda Haines, the Space Fence program manager for the Electronic Systems Center (ESC) – the U.S. Air Force’s organization for developing and acquiring Command and Control systems.

During the next 18 months both contractors will be expected to develop preliminary system designs, radar performance analyses, and prototypes. After being awarded the contracts, Lockheed Martin and Raytheon had understandably similar things to say.

“The proliferation of orbital objects, including rocket debris and satellites, threatens our daily use of space-based technology and its valuable services, such as electronic navigation, satellite broadcasting and medical research,” said John Morse, Lockheed Martin Space Fence program director. “Our Space Fence design will provide the Air Force with more time to react to events potentially impacting our space assets and missions – such as collisions with space debris – before they happen.”

Meanwhile, Dave Gulla, vice president, National & Theater Security Programs for Raytheon Integrated Defense Systems said, "As the amount of debris in space continues to rise, the ability to detect smaller and smaller objects with more affordable, ground-based sensors becomes increasingly urgent. Leveraging our vast heritage in radar development, combined with our latest technological advancements, the Raytheon Space Fence solution provides the Air Force with an affordable and much-needed, increased space situational awareness capability for many years to come."

The current VHF system is located in the continental U.S., whereas the new Space Fence will field two or three high-power, S-band ground-based radars at strategic sites around the world, (Australia is a candidate for one such location). This will enable it to expand global surveillance coverage into the Southern Hemisphere. The radars will provide the Air Force with uncued detection, tracking, accurate measurement and cataloging of space objects, primarily in low-earth orbit.

After completion of the current phase of the project in 2012, the ESC is expected to award the final development and production contract with the goal of having the system in full operation by September 2015.

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