The U.S. Air Force’s (USAF) Space Fence radar completed its developmental and operational testing phases and has entered a trial period – one of the last steps before achieving operational acceptance.
The Space Fence radar facility, located on Kwajalein Atoll in the Republic of the Marshall Islands, will use Lockheed Martin’s Gallium Nitride (GaN) powered S-band ground-based radars to provide the Air Force with uncued detection, tracking and accurate measurement of space objects, primarily in low-earth orbit (LEO). The locations and higher wave frequency of the new Space Fence radars will permit the detection of much smaller microsatellites and debris than current systems.
Beyond cataloging objects, the system will detect closely-spaced objects, breakups, maneuvers, launches and conjunction assessments from LEO through Geosynchronous Earth Orbit (GSO). Frequent collisions and deterioration of assets, such as defunct satellites and rocket boosters, have increased the amount of space debris and raised the risk of future collisions in space. According to NASA’s most recent Orbital Debris Quarterly News, NASA calculates about 17.6 million pounds of objects are in earth orbit. That number will only grow as more commercial space projects launch massive constellations with thousands of small satellites, presenting a huge problem for both U.S. government and commercial organizations.
“Space Fence will revolutionize the way we track and classify objects that threaten both manned and unmanned military and commercial space assets critical to our national defense and economy,” said Dr. Rob Smith, vice president and general manager of Lockheed Martin’s Radar and Sensor Systems. “The Air Force Space Surveillance Network currently tracks about 25,000 objects. When Space Fence comes online, the catalog will experience significant growth and when fully operational, Space Fence will be the world’s largest and most advanced radar system, providing unprecedented space situational awareness.”
Space Fence has already begun to prove its unmatched capabilities. During testing of the system in March, it detected the debris field from an anti-satellite test conducted by India. Space Fence observed a significant amount of debris tracks surrounding the time of the event, and the system proved its ability to automatically predict and correlate their next crossing times.
Once the Trial Period is successfully completed, operational acceptance of the radar will be declared by the Air Force. A future second site is planned to go online in 2021.