Shelton explained his decision to close the current Space Fence, a line of very high frequency radars stretching across the southern United States, and described what a delay the contract award for the next-generation space-object tracking system means.
To make up for the lost capability of closing the old Space Fence, formally known as the Air Force Space Surveillance System (AFSSS), Space Command is looking at modified operating modes for the Perimeter Acquisition Radar Characterization System (PARCS) at Cavalier Air Force Station in North Dakota and the space surveillance radar at Eglin Air Force Base in Florida.
Here are some highlights from the email:
“The need for space situational awareness has grown immensely over the past decade, driven in part by the increased reliance our Nation has on space capabilities, in part by the increase of space debris generated by the Chinese (anti-satellite) test and on-orbit collisions, and in part by the growing threats. The AFSSS and other legacy sensors have been the backbone of our capability for years, but they were fielded in an era that had not seen the revolutionary changes in computing power and advanced electronics. As the space domains become more congested, AFSPC has addressed these concerns by upgrading our command and control capabilities through the (Joint Space Operations Center) Mission System, and fielding more capable sensors, such as the Space Based Surveillance System and the new Space Fence. The modernization of our sensors and our computing power provide a quantum leap forward in our ability to deliver quality space situational awareness for the Nation.
“The AFSSS served our Nation well by providing critical understanding of the space environment since the early days of space exploration, through the Cold War, to today. Transitioning to a more capable and sustainable network, the Eglin and (Perimeter Acquisition Radar Characterization System) PARCS radars will continue their role as critical space surveillance sensors mitigating the AFSSS by employing “fences” of energy that report on objects passing through them. Eglin and PARCS enhance the report with more precise data measures that AFSSS cannot. This higher-quality data quality will alleviate the decreased coverage volume from AFSSS.
“When we field the new Space Fence, it will bring to operations the best qualities of sensitivity, capacity and coverage. The Space Fence will not only match the capacity of the AFSSS, but also improve the data quality of our network, providing unsurpassed space situational awareness for our warfighters and the Nation.”
ON THE COSTS OF THE NEW SPACE FENCE
“As part of the final Space Fence Engineering & Manufacturing Development Production & Deployment contract proposals, the Program Office has cost estimates for the first two years of operations and maintenance; however, until the contract is awarded these figures cannot be released due to sensitivities with source selection. We are looking forward to the award and fielding of the Space Fence, which will provide enhanced capabilities and increased sensitivity, necessary to maintain situational awareness of threats. As our reliance on space grows, our need to track and avoid these threats will also increase.”
ON WHAT THE NEW SPACE FENCE OFFERS
“Neither the new operating modes nor regular sustainment upgrades to Eglin and Cavalier provide the capabilities offered by the new Space Fence. The acquisition of the new Space Fence is foundational for the near earth position of the AFSPC balanced space situational awareness strategy. The planned location of Space Fence in the southern hemisphere will allow it to track objects in low inclinations which provides greater visibility of high value objects in the near earth regime, providing increased battlespace awareness for the Nation and the warfighter. The new Space Fence will provide very precise positional data on orbiting objects and will be the most accurate radar in the Space Surveillance Network. It will provide enhanced space surveillance capabilities to detect and track orbiting objects such as commercial and military satellites, depleted space boosters and space debris. The new Space Fence will have much greater sensitivity, allowing it to detect, track and measure an object the size of a softball orbiting more than 1,200 miles in space. Because it is also an un-cued tracking system, it will provide evidence of satellite break-ups, collisions, or unexpected maneuvers of satellites. When combined with the new Joint Space Operations Center’s high performance computing environment, the new Fence represents tremendous capabilities in space situational awareness.”
ON HOW SPACE SURVEILLANCE SITES IN FLORIDA AND NORTH DAKOTA WILL BE USED
“Both radars are operating as designed and, as with any weapon system, they are periodically upgraded (e.g., software and hardware) to optimize performance. Additionally, operating procedures are regularly reviewed and modified to address current or emerging operational concerns (you may have heard these referred to as tactics, techniques and procedures). In this case, a portion of transmissions from both Eglin and PARCS will be used to establish radar ‘fences’ that will enable the detection of space events such as breakups; this capability is currently provided by the AFSSS. This will enable the transition to our future architecture, which will greatly enhance our space situational awareness, when we award and field the new Space Fence.”
ON COMPARING THE OLD SPACE FENCE AND NEW SPACE FENCE
“There is really no comparison between the contribution of the AFSSS and the capabilities of the new Space Fence. The loss of the AFSSS will be mitigated by the new operating modes at Eglin and Cavalier. The new Fence will provide additional capacity, sensitivity and orbital inclination coverage not possible with the AFSSS.”
ON WHAT CAN BE GAINED
“Both PARCS and Eglin already provide much more accurate data than the AFSSS. By using a variety of operating modes at PARCS and Eglin AFB, and developing new procedures across the space surveillance network, we will provide coverage lost by discontinuing operations at the AFSSS. The fences employed by Eglin and PARCS will help fill the coverage lost by the AFSSS, but it will not completely replace it; however, what we lose in volume of coverage is offset with more-precise data collected by existing radars.”
Federal budget cuts are compelling the US Air Force to shut down its space surveillance system, which detects and tracks objects and satellites orbiting the Earth, but costs the agency $14 million a year.
The Air Force on Monday announced its plan to shut down the surveillance system by October 1, citing the sequestration as the cause. The Air Force operated the surveillance system under contract, and the agency has notified the vendor, Five River Services in Colorado Springs, Colo., that it will probably not be renewing its options after the fiscal year ends on Oct. 1.
“This is your notice to begin preparing the sites for closure,” said a memo received by the vendor, which was obtained by Space News. “…A specific date to turn off the mission system has not been established yet, but will be provided to you immediately upon determination.”
By deactivating the surveillance system, the Air Force Space Command will save $14 million a year, but it will no longer be able to track objects or debris that come into Earth’s orbit, or provide information to predict collisions.
The surveillance system, also known as the “Space Fence” due to its vertical transmission of a “fence” of radar energy that can deter any objects from crossing it, has been in operation since 1961 and is outdated, Commander of the Air Force Space Command General William Shelton said in a news release. Rather than spend any more money on old technology, the Air Force will disable it and instead work on a new system that can more precisely locate objects orbiting the Earth.
The current system, which will be discontinued, is made up of three transmitters and six receivers that are dispersed throughout the southern United States.
It’s “much less capable than the space fence radar planned for Kwajalein Island in the Republic of the Marshall Islands,” Shelton said, comparing the old system with the new one the Air Force is planning. “In fact, it’s apples and oranges in trying to compare the two systems.”
The new “space fence” will be more sensitive to data about objects orbiting the Earth, and have the capability to track objects as small as a softball located 1,200 miles away from the Earth. It will also be able to provide information about unexpected collisions, satellite maneuvers or satellite break-ups.
More than 21,000 piece of debris larger than 10 cm are currently known to orbit the Earth, and the estimated number of particles between 1 and 10 cm is 500,000. A space fence system monitors the data automatically, and provides important information about the condition of satellites.
Last year, NASA almost lost its $400 million Fermi Gamma-ray Space Telescope in a collision it narrowly avoided. And in 2009, a US Iridium communications satellite collided with a Russian Cosmos 2251 communications satellite, which added more debris to the atmosphere and reinforced the need for better tracking of objects in Earth’s orbit.
But budgetary concerns have held the Air Force up from awarding a new contract to build the updated system. At a meeting with congressional lawmakers in July, Shelton said he was ready to award a contract, but that the Pentagon is still reviewing the request.
“I can tell you from a personal perspective it’s a high priority for Air Force Space Command, and I think for the nation in terms of space situational awareness,” he told lawmakers. “So we’re hopeful that we’ll get authority to award that contract very shortly.”
But until the Pentagon allocates its funds to establish a new space surveillance system, the US will soon be left in the dark about the objects orbiting the Earth and the threats NASA’s satellites may be facing.