Sequester Shutters System for Tracking Threats from Outer Space

NASA

Air Force eyes a $2 billion replacement fence, subject to Pentagon review.

Amid cost-cutting efforts, the Air Force plans to shut down an aging radar system that tracks thousands of objects in space. The fate of a planned $2 billion replacement system is still up in the air.

The Air Force Space Command said that “due to resource constraints caused by sequestration,” it has directed the 21st Space Wing to discontinue operations at the Air Force Space Surveillance System by Oct. 1. Deactivating the system, which tracks satellites and orbital debris, will save $14 million annually.

The Air Force plans to replace the space surveillance system with a new “space fence” that will include new sophisticated radar on Kwajalein Island in the Pacific. "The AFSSS is much less capable than the space fence radar planned for Kwajalein Island in the Republic of the Marshall Islands," said Gen. William L. Shelton, commander of the Air Force Space Command. "In fact, it's apples and oranges in trying to compare the two systems."

The space fence will provide enhanced surveillance capabilities to detect and track orbiting objects such as commercial and military satellites, depleted space boosters and space debris, according to the Space Command. The fence will have much greater sensitivity than AFSSS, allowing it to detect, track and measure an object the size of a softball orbiting more than 1,200 miles in space.

Lockheed Martin Corp. and Raytheon Co. submitted competing bids for the space fence last November, Shelton said in a July 16 speech. Brendan Curry, vice president of Washington operations for the nonprofit Space Foundation, said that despite the high price tag, the space fence will win Pentagon approval because of the need to track objects in space that could interfere with satellite operations.

The Navy developed the space surveillance system, which has been in operation since 1961, and transferred control to the Air Force in 2004. AFSSS is a series of three transmitters and six receivers along the 33rd parallel, stretching across the southern United States.

Space Command said it has devised modified operating modes for the Perimeter Acquisition Radar Characterization System at Cavalier Air Force Station, N.D., and for the space surveillance radar at Eglin Air Force Base, Fla., allowing the discontinuation of AFSSS operations while still maintaining solid space situational awareness.

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