LOS ANGELES — Right now, millions of objects are whizzing around Earth faster than speeding bullets. Much of this is celestial garbage – remnants of past missions and cosmic collisions that have taken place over half a century.
Dead satellites. Spent rocket stages. Astronauts’ long-lost equipment.
To keep watch over this vast orbiting junkyard, the Air Force has awarded a $914.7 million contract to Lockheed Martin Corp. to develop a surveillance system that will provide a continuous watch over what’s up there.
The system will enable the U.S. government to detect and track objects as they circle the globe, particularly the most congested areas of space.
The clouds of debris hurtle through the cosmos at up to 17,500 mph. At that speed, even a small piece of junk is a menace to the International Space Station and satellites that are fundamental to the economy, military and our modern way of life.
Currently, every launch – whether of astronauts, spy satellites or digital television satellites – needs to be carefully synchronized so it isn’t swiftly obliterated by orbiting debris.
But before a solution is proposed, experts need to understand what exactly is orbiting Earth and the danger it poses.
Air Force officials say the new surveillance system from Lockheed, dubbed “Space Fence,” is a step in that direction.
“Previously, the Air Force could only track and identify items the size of a basketball,” said Dana Whalley, the government’s program manager. “With the new system, we’ll be able to identify items down to the size of a softball. This will significantly increase our capability.”
Researchers have cataloged more than 23,000 items that are bigger than a basketball, but just a scant 1,100 are functioning spacecraft.
A scene out of ‘Gravity’
A 2007 study from the National Research Council showed that the amount of space junk is at a “tipping point.”
That same year, China blasted a missile at an old weather satellite and destroyed it – at the same time adding more than 3,000 pieces of debris. In 2009, a defunct Russian satellite collided with and destroyed a functioning U.S. commercial satellite, creating an additional 2,000 scraps of space trash.
A big concern is that the debris will continue colliding and eventually set off a domino effect. That sort of incident was depicted in the Oscar-winning motion picture “Gravity.”
“I don’t want to say that a Hollywood movie is a reflection of reality,” Whalley said. “But they did do a good job of showing what a debris field looks like as it moves through space.”
Jammed on Earth’s Outer Loop
It is a real threat, according to Dave Baiocchi and William Welser, researchers at Santa Monica-based RAND Corp. who have written on space debris for the last six years. But it is important to remember that outer space is a big place and some regions are more crowded than others, they say.
Consider the rush-hour traffic among particles about 600 miles above Earth’s surface. This is where Earth imagery spacecraft – like those used in services such as Google Earth – have created a high-traffic area of orbit.
“We need to understand what’s going on in those areas and assess the risk,” Welser said. “That’s why programs like the Space Fence are so important. It’s the first step.”
The Space Fence will replace the Space Surveillance Network, which has been spotting objects since 1957, when the Soviet Union launched Sputnik, triggering the space race.
Lockheed will begin breaking ground at Kwajalein Atoll, an island located more than 2,400 miles southwest of Honolulu, in six months. The system’s initial operational capability is set for 2018.