The U.S. Air Force today awarded Lockheed Martin Corp. a $915 million contract to build a radar system to track space junk.
Lockheed, based in Bethesda, Maryland, beat Waltham, Massachusetts-based Raytheon Co. following years of competing for the work. Both companies rank among the top five federal contractors.
The ground-based radar project, known as a space fence, would detect much smaller debris than is now possible under an Air Force system installed in 1961.
The system is a priority for the service, because orbiting waste traveling at speeds as high as 17,500 miles per hour (about 28,200 kilometers per hour) increasingly is putting satellites and the International Space Station at risk.
“I have, you know, been practically down on my knees begging for the capability,” General William Shelton, commander of Air Force Space Command, said during a January forum at George Washington University in Washington.
The contract calls for a radar system to be built in the Marshall Islands that Steve Bruce, vice president for advanced systems at Lockheed Martin’s mission systems unit, said would be operational by 2018. There’s a possibility for a second radar to be located in Australia, he said.
“This is an extremely important mission,” Bruce said in a conference call with reporters. “We will know a lot more about what’s in space than we know today.”
Pamela Erickson, a spokesman for Raytheon, declined to comment.
Raytheon wasn’t left empty-handed today. Separately, it beat Chicago-based Boeing Co. for a $298 million contract to provide satellite communications terminals. Boeing previously held the contract.
The system is designed to provide the president and other top government leaders with secure communications for directing military forces, said Brian Friel, a Bloomberg Industries analyst. The program is estimated to cost $2.39 billion to complete, according to a March report by the U.S. Government Accountability Office.
As for the space junk, more than 500,000 pieces at least the size of marbles are orbiting the Earth, and more than 20,000 of them are larger than a softball, according to the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, which can maneuver the space station and some satellites to try to avoid collisions.
The current system can detect objects the size of a basketball, while the the new radar will be able to detect debris the size of a baseball, Bruce said. Instead of the 20,000 objects that can now be picked up on radar, the new system will be able to locate 200,000, he said.
The debris includes old satellites, rocket boosters and even a tool bag that drifted away from an astronaut at the space station. The astronauts’ list of lost items also includes a spatula, a camera and needle-nose pliers.
Millions of other pieces of debris are too small to be tracked, and even flecks of paint can lead to damage.
Considering the dangers, the space fence is worth the price tag, Shelton said at the university.
“It’s expensive, no doubt about it, but when you look at the service that it will provide not just for the United States, but again for the world in this whole kind of space debris and space monitoring capability, it is something the world will benefit from,” he said.