Lockheed’s Space Fence Prototype Starts Tracking Space Junk With Advanced Radar

Orbital debris is a large and growing problem, and no one is quite sure how to deal with it — polar lasers, nets and other concepts are still merely ideas. But we should at least monitor all that space trash, to be certain where it is and whether it’s heading for something we want to protect, like the ISS or a military satellite. The Air Force’s new Space Fence, designed to keep an eye on space trash, is getting closer to reality.

Lockheed Martin, which is vying for a contract to build the new space fence, just switched on its prototype space-debris radar system. Lockheed’s concept uses new ground-based radar systems to track across the whole sky, looking for more than 200,000 objects and anything at least 0.8 inches across.

The radar is a solid-state S-band radar, like the type used in Navy warships and in some weather radar. Its wavelength frequency can detect much smaller objects than the current space debris tracking, the Mercury-era Air Force Space Surveillance System. That system can monitor 20,000 of the 100 million or so objects in orbit, and it can’t see anything smaller than 11 inches in diameter. Plenty of orbital debris is a lot smaller than that, especially after accidental collisions and deliberate explosions blast satellites to smithereens.

Raytheon is also competing for the Space Fence contract, which will be worth $3.5 billion. This new Lockheed prototype is a demonstrator worth $107 million, and the Air Force formally approved its design a week ago.

The Air Force is expected to award the contract later this year, and the Space Fence will be operational by 2017. Lockheed made this explainer video to show off its new system.