The Space Fence is designed to replace a radar system that was built in 196, the same year the Soviet Union sent the first man into space. Our current radar is only capable of tracking very large objects—approximately the size of a washing machine—and can only track about 20,000 of them. As a result, hundreds of thousands of smaller objects are, quite literally, flying under the radar. As more nations and private enterprises take to space, the urgency becomes more acute. In May, the Ecuadorians saw their lone satellite seriously disabled when Russian space debris crashed into it.
The Pentagon’s proposed Space Fence program will build up to two large, ground-based radars to detect and track hundreds of thousands of pieces of space debris that are whizzing around our planet in constant orbit. It would be able to track remnants from decommissioned satellites, rockets that have been discarded from space shuttles, and debris caused by recent collisions.
Nobody really knows how much space debris is in orbit, and more alarmingly, nobody knows exactly where they are. This is why the need for a Space Fence should be self-evident. In space, debris travels at a high rate of speed, approximately 17,000 miles per hour. Something the size of a golf ball could take out a multi-million dollar satellite that might operate your iPhone or facilitate troop movements in Afghanistan. Moreover, thanks to budget cuts proffered by Congress and the Obama Administration, the United States no longer has the quite the same capability to get a replacement into orbit in short order as it once did. A blackout could potential last for days.
The Air Force has rightly determined that the program is important enough to prioritize, even as the sequester continues to hit. In order to ensure the Space Fence is not subjected to future cuts, the contract to build it must be awarded as soon as is practical. There are few more important things than ensuring the systems that allow us to communicate around the globe, defend our nation from terrorists, and evacuate citizens before a storm are operational when we need them.
So far America has been moderately lucky. The collisions that have already taken place haven’t impacted our normal reliance on satellites or jeopardized our military men and women. Depending on luck, however, is not a viable strategy moving forward– especially when it comes to protecting a space economy worth more than$300 billion annually.
The Air Force is already behind schedule on building the new Space Fence. They need to get started as soon as possible. We cannot wait until we see the full effect a space junk collision will have on our military, economy and way of life to determine that this is an incredibly important project.