Orbiting our planet right now there is about 6,000 tons of junk – old satellites, rockets, pieces of space ships and the like. That space junk can cause collisions and problems for active space ships and satellites. Keeping track of it is key, and a new system just passed a key test in its development.
Since 1961 the Air Force has used a system call the Air Force Space Surveillance System (AFSSS) to track that debris. But the system is old and unreliable. Now, Lockheed Martin is developing what they’re calling a “space fence” to keep an eye on all that junk. One of their firsts tests just came back fruitful: successfully detecting orbiting space junk.
"The successful detection and tracking of resident space objects are important steps in demonstrating technology maturity, cost certainty and low program risk," Steve Bruce, vice president of the Space Fence program for Lockheed Martin, said in a statement. "Our final system design incorporates a scalable, solid-state S-band radar, with a higher wavelength frequency capable of detecting much smaller objects than the Air Force’s current system."
The big vision for the Space Fence is to have lots of radars at different geographic sites to track all the different pollutants in space. Overall they’re ready to take on about 200,000 floating pieces of garbage. While the system isn’t really a physical fence, it will keep track of the junk, and be able to help satellites and space craft avoid the pieces.
Developing the Space Fence will take 18 months and cost $107 million, at which point they will then hope to actually build the system. The fence, should it get approved, would be finished in 2017.
Here’s a video of Lockheed’s idea:
According to Space.com there are 22,000 pieces of debris as large as a softball, and 500,000 pieces larger than a marble floating around Earth. On top of that, there are about 1,000 active satellites still trying to get around the planet. Inevitably, there will be collisions like the one in 2009 when the Iridium 33 was struck by a junk Russian satellite.
Space Junk has made the news recently too as several large piece have fallen from the sky. In September a NASA satellite called the Upper Atmosphere Re-search Satellite came down in the middle of the South Pacific. A month later a German satellite fell into the Bay of Bengal. In January, a Russian probe fell into the Pacific Ocean as well.
Many of these satellites break up as they’re coming through the atmosphere into a rain of scraps. Luckily, so far they’ve all fallen into remote areas of the ocean, and haven’t caused any damage, but it’s easy to imagine something like the Hubble Space Telescope or the International Space Station causing serious trouble for whoever happens to live in its path.
There was even an IMAX movie about space junk.
So while there’s no real danger of death by space junk, keeping track of it all is important for the future of space travel. The Space Fence might do just that.
Photo Credit: NASA