The Sequester Is Limiting Our Protection From Extraterrestrial Threats

National Journal
Brian Resnick
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Brian Resnick
Aug. 13, 2013, 10:13 a.m.

For­get cut­backs on bath­room clean­ings at na­tion­al parks or the fur­lough of thou­sands of gov­ern­ment work­ers. Per­haps the greatest vul­ner­ab­il­ity the se­quester has opened up is the threat of ex­tra­ter­restri­al de­struc­tion.

That’s right. This week, the Air Force an­nounced that it is pre­pared to shut down its Space Sur­veil­lance Sys­tem come Oc­to­ber as it seeks to com­ply with se­quester cuts in its 2014 budget. Ac­cord­ing to the press re­lease, the Air Force will save $14 mil­lion a year from cut­ting a pro­gram that uses radar to de­tect met­eors en­ter­ing the at­mo­sphere, such as the one that in­jured 1,000 in Rus­sia in Feb­ru­ary, or debris that can dam­age our satel­lite sys­tems. The news site Mil­it­ says the sys­tem has the cap­ab­il­ity “to loc­ate threats as small as a bas­ket­ball.” So we can as­sume it could also de­tect an in­com­ing ali­en space­craft.

At this point in the end-of-the-world movie, the Jeff Gold­blum char­ac­ter would rush to the gen­er­al’s or pres­id­ent’s of­fice, shout­ing emo­tion­ally that we can’t ig­nore the chance that de­struc­tion will rain down from out­er space. (In typ­ic­al fash­ion, the gen­er­al or pres­id­ent would flip­pantly point to the na­tion’s nuc­le­ar ar­sen­al to solve any space-re­lated prob­lem.) After all, Mil­it­ re­ports that last year the Air Force called the pro­gram “a crit­ic­al de­fense sys­tem [that] shall be manned on a 24-hour, 7-days-a-week, 365-days-a-year basis.”

But the Air Force backs down from that as­sess­ment in Tues­day’s re­lease, say­ing the space mon­it­or is an aging sys­tem with an “in­her­ent in­ac­cur­acy,” and that it is just one of many space-mon­it­or­ing pro­grams. (Ac­cord­ing to Space News, it ac­counts for 40 per­cent of the Air Force’s space mon­it­or­ing.)

The AFSSS, which has been op­er­a­tion­al since 1961, is just one part of AF­SPC’s glob­al Space Sur­veil­lance Net­work. The sys­tem is de­signed to trans­mit a “fence” of radar en­ergy ver­tic­ally in­to space to de­tect all ob­jects in­ter­sect­ing that fence. The op­er­a­tion­al ad­vant­age of the AFSSS is its abil­ity to de­tect ob­jects in an un-cued fash­ion, rather than track­ing ob­jects based on pre­vi­ous in­form­a­tion. The dis­ad­vant­age is the in­her­ent in­ac­cur­acy of the data, based on its dated design.

To cope with the shut­down, the Air Force is look­ing to ramp up oth­er com­pon­ents of its space-mon­it­or­ing ap­par­at­us. And new space-mon­it­or­ing tech­no­logy is on the ho­ri­zon. A new­fangled “Space Fence” is un­der de­vel­op­ment by Ray­theon and Lock­heed Mar­tin (and sup­posed to be in use by 2017), but the Air Force has yet to award the con­tract. Once in place, that sys­tem will be able to mon­it­or 200,000 ob­jects in space, ac­cord­ing to Ray­theon press ma­ter­i­als. The cur­rent sys­tem can mon­it­or about 20,000.

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