The Sequester Is Limiting Our Protection From Extraterrestrial Threats

National Journal
Brian Resnick
Add to Briefcase
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 Mil­it­ary.com 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, Mil­it­ary.com 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.

What We're Following See More »
CAN’T NAME ONE WORLD LEADER
Gary Johnson Stumbles Again
1 hours ago
WHY WE CARE
GOES TO PRESIDENT
Senate Approves Bill to Preserve Rape Kits
1 hours ago
THE LATEST

"The Senate on Wednesday approved legislation ensuring sexual assault survivors in federal criminal cases have access to forensic evidence collection kits, sending the bill to President Obama's desk. The legislation, known as the Survivors’ Bill of Rights Act, was passed by unanimous consent as lawmakers prepare to leave Washington until after the election. The House passed the measure earlier this month."

Source:
2-MONTH GIG OR 8-YEAR GIG?
Alec Baldwin to Play Trump on ‘SNL’
2 hours ago
THE DETAILS
STRIKES DOWN NEW HAMPSHIRE BAN
Court: Selfies in Voting Booth Now OK
4 hours ago
WHY WE CARE
WILL LEAD U.S. DELEGATION
Obama to Travel to Israel for Peres’s Funeral
5 hours ago
THE DETAILS
×