Michael Harper for redOrbit.com – Your Universe Online
Budget cutbacks have forced the United States Air Force (USAF) to shutter its “Space Fence” satellite surveillance program. On October 1, the USAF will officially stop tracking orbiting objects or space debris that comes within a certain distance from planet Earth.
The cuts, which are a part of the sequestration, will save the Air Force as much as $14 million each year. The earliest phases of the current Space Fence were set in place in 1961 and, according to Commander of the Air Force Space Command, General William Shelton, are outdated. Though the budget cuts will take the surveillance system out of operation, General Shelton said in an official statement a new Space Fence is currently being developed that will vastly outperform the current system.
The current iteration, known as the Air Force Space Surveillance System (AFSSS) will remain in place after the October 1 deadline, though nonoperational. It will remain there until officials reach a decision about how to dispose of it properly. Though the Fence will be taken offline, the USAF will continue to search the sky for any incoming threats. According to a press release, officials will operate modified versions of the fence at Cavalier Air Force Station in North Dakota and Elgin Air Force Base in Florida. This, says an Air Force press release, will allow the military branch to shut down the fence “while still maintaining solid space situational awareness.”
The Fence is composed of three transmitters and six receivers placed strategically around the southern United States. Transmitters in Jordan Lake and Gila River, Arizona and one in Lake Kickapoo, Texas act as “fence poles” for the surveillance system, projecting a virtual fence of radar energy into space. Six receivers in Arkansas, California, Georgia, Mississippi and New Mexico are used to determine what is flying near our planet and how closely. According to the press release, two receivers in California and Georgia have already been decommissioned earlier last April.
Previously the Fence worked by broadcasting radar signals into space and receiving signals anytime an object crossed the threshold of this radio signal. Though this system quickly alerted Air Force officials about possible intruding objects, the data was sometimes spotty and not always accurate. The Air Force now says the temporary system they’ll be setting up in Florida and North Dakota will be more accurate than the old Fence.
This supplemental system will stay in place until the Air Force can complete the new system, which could be operational by 2017.
“The AFSSS is much less capable than the space fence radar planned for Kwajalein Island in the Republic of the Marshall Islands,” explained General Shelton. “In fact, it’s apples and oranges in trying to compare the two systems.”
According to an article by Forbes, the new Space Fence is so accurate it can track items as small as 4 inches wide. Though the new Fence has already been designed, the same sequestration budget cuts have prevented the USAF from awarding the final $3 billion contract to build it.
In 2009 the Air Force awarded three contracts to Lockheed Martin, Northrop Grumman and Raytheon to build the new surveillance system. The Air Force must now wait for sequestration to end before it can move forward with construction plans.