After starring in the Hollywood blockbuster Gravity, space junk is getting some attention from the Pentagon. The Department of Defense has designed a “space fence,” a radar system designed to track more than 200,000 bits of orbiting debris with the goal of reducing the chance of satellite-killing collisions.
The Air Force awarded Lockheed Martin a $914 million contract earlier this month to design and build the system, which will be able to track objects as small as a baseball and increase the resolution of current tracking by tenfold.
An estimated 500,000 pieces of debris, from paint flecks to partially destroyed satellite remnants, orbit the earth at speeds as high as 17,500 miles per hour. Given those enormous velocities, even tiny objects pose an enormous threat to whatever they may strike. Most of the trash is man-made, the result of 50 years of human space flight. A February 2009 crash between a 1,200-pound Iridium Communications satellite and a defunct Russian Cosmos satellite created an estimated 2,000 pieces of additional debris. In March 2012, U.S. and Russian authorities instructed six crew members aboard the International Space Station to take shelter in the Soyuz capsules on the ISS as a precaution as pieces of that debris passed.
The fence is scheduled to begin operating in 2018, with construction of the first radar installation scheduled for early next year in the Marshall Islands. Construction of a second radar station is planned for western Australia if the Pentagon decides to expand the contract to increase the fence’s coverage.