Air Force Begs Congress: Save the Space Fence

The proposal preserves development of new radars aimed at keeping vessels safe from deadly space trash.

Earth is surrounded with lots of space debris.
National Journal
Alex Brown
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Alex Brown
March 5, 2014, midnight

Months after se­quest­ra­tion cuts shut down the coun­try’s “Space Fence,” the Air Force budget un­veiled Tues­day pre­serves $2 bil­lion to build a suc­cessor to the pro­gram that helps keep space ves­sels safe from high-speed or­bit­al debris.

For the Air Force, keep­ing its new radar in­stall­a­tions off the Pentagon’s budget-cut chop­ping block was es­sen­tial. The Space Fence is part of the Air Force’s Space Sur­veil­lance Net­work, which tracks many of the roughly half-mil­lion pieces of debris that clog Earth’s or­bit.

At 17,000 miles per hour, even a marble-sized ob­ject could cause cata­stroph­ic dam­age to a space­craft. And one col­li­sion can cause a debris field that leads to many more — a scen­ario demon­strated in the movie Grav­ity. The Space Fence helped de­crease that risk. In 2012, the net­work helped satel­lite own­ers make 75 man­euvers to avoid col­li­sions.

Last Septem­ber, the Space Fence — re­spons­ible for 40 per­cent of the net­work’s track­ing — shut down. It had been in op­er­a­tion since 1961. The Air Force blamed the clos­ing on “re­source con­straints caused by se­quest­ra­tion.” While the first half of that re­lease la­ments the loss of Space Fence’s in­form­a­tion, the last five para­graphs hype the new­er, bet­ter Space Fence, call­ing it key to the Air Force’s fu­ture track­ing abil­ity.

So what did we lose, and what will we gain? First, the ad­vant­age of Space Fence over oth­er pro­grams on the Space Sur­veil­lance Net­work is its un­cued track­ing. Rather than fol­low­ing spe­cif­ic ob­jects, it served as a “trip wire” to mon­it­or space events, such as debris-caus­ing col­li­sions.

When the new Space Fence is in­stalled, it will bring back that cap­ab­il­ity — but on a much more power­ful scale. The Air Force hopes to have S-band radars ready by 2018. While the cur­rent Space Fence could see about 23,000 ob­jects lar­ger than four inches, something like 480,000 smal­ler ob­jects still threaten space­craft. S-band will ex­pand our abil­ity to see those pieces of debris.

The first S-band radar, the Air Force con­firmed in its budget, will be loc­ated in the Mar­shall Is­lands, al­low­ing bet­ter track­ing of or­bits that cross the South­ern Hemi­sphere. The second is ex­pec­ted to be built in west­ern Aus­tralia.

While the Air Force saved $14 mil­lion when it shut down Space Fence last year, the new-and-im­proved ver­sion in this year’s budget will cost close to $2 bil­lion. And the pain­ful, short-term cuts may have had a role in pre­serving the pro­gram’s long-her­al­ded up­grades.

Since last year’s Space Fence cuts in­hib­ited our abil­ity to track debris in the near-term, wrote Bri­an Weeden, a vet­er­an of the Air Force’s space pro­grams, they made it that much more im­port­ant to pre­serve that ca­pa­city in the fu­ture. By crip­pling the pro­gram’s cur­rent op­er­a­tions — which Weeden says wasn’t ne­ces­sar­ily man­dated by se­quest­ra­tion — the Air Force ad­ded pres­sure to the Pentagon to ap­prove the the S-band radars and re­store the early-warn­ing sys­tem.

“The Pentagon is un­der sig­ni­fic­ant pres­sure to find budget cuts and there was an in­tern­al de­bate over wheth­er the S-Band Space Fence was really worth the in­vest­ment,” Weeden wrote in an email. “…[I]f un-stick­ing the road­b­lock to the S-Band Space Fence was the goal, then on the sur­face [cut­ting the Space Fence dur­ing se­quest­ra­tion] seems it may have worked.” He ad­ded that there’s still no proof the Air Force de­lib­er­ately cut Space Fence to pave the way for its suc­cessor.

Air Force spokespeople did not im­me­di­ately re­spond to a re­quest for com­ment.

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