REDSTONE ARSENAL, Ala. -- The Air Force awarded a $914.7 million contract June 2 to develop a space fence system that will track objects in Earth's orbit with far greater confidence and fidelity. This system is an attempt to avoid collisions in space by more accurately tracking bits of space debris orbiting the Earth with a goal of reaching operational capability in late 2018.

The space fence is an S-band radar that will be located on the U.S. Army Garrison Kwajalein Atoll, Republic of the Marshall Islands and the Space Fence Operations Center will be co-located at Reagan Test Site Operation Center in Huntsville, or ROC-H. The space fence will replace the Air Force Space Surveillance System, or AFSSS, which has been in service since 1961 and could track about 20,000 objects before being shut down last year.

The space fence will expand that to 100,000 objects or more by using two strategically placed ground radars, with the first one to be located on Kwajalein and the second to be located in Australia if further procurement allows for it.

"Kwajalein's proximity to the equator is important for the space fence as it relates to space situational awareness," said Maj. Christopher L. Fairley, ROC-H space operations officer. "The radar is stationary and looks straight up for space objects. As the earth rotates over a 24-hour period it creates a wide angle 'fence' that will track softball sized objects in low and medium earth orbits."

Fairley said the space fence radar operates in the S-band frequency spectrum, which provides more fidelity at low earth orbit and medium earth orbit ranges than what the old AFSSS used. The radars will cover enough continuous area to effectively create a "fence" through which orbiting objects will pass.

He talked about the importance of the Space Fence and what it means for future U.S. Army Space and Missile Defense Command/Army Forces Strategic Command and ROC-H operations.

"Reagan Test Site does many things for many customers with respect to research and development and critical missile tests, but we also support an ongoing 24/7 Army Space Surveillance Mission, which supports the Warfighter by protecting space assets that are depended upon to support operations in the field at strategic, operational and tactical levels. Hosting the space fence at Kwajalein enhances this important space mission support," Fairley said. "One of our SMDC deliverables in operations is to provide space tracking and space situational awareness capabilities to U.S. Strategic Command. The Air Force Space Fence, working in concert with RTS radars, will enhance all of that space tracking support to USSTRATCOM.

"Furthermore, we have a long history of partnership with the Air Force on programs that support national defense and this will only strengthen our relationship," he added.

The radars and capabilities at RTS include: ALTAIR (UHF/VHF), TRADEX (S and L band), MMW (Ka band), ALCOR (C-band), and a suite of telemetry, optics, flight termination systems, and C-band beacon tracking radars.

"The Air Force Space Fence will greatly improve space situational awareness and add to Kwajalein's world class suite of sensors and instrumentation that are vital to our national security," Fairley said.

The program has been in the works since 2009, when the Air Force awarded three concept development contracts. The Air Force awarded the space fence contract to Lockheed Martin with a projected initial operational capability in fiscal year 2019. Additionally, the contract includes an option for procuring a second radar site on Australia.

"When space fence reaches its full operational capability it will have two geographically dispersed sites located on Kwaj and Australia," Fairley said. "This will improve space object detection and space event and launch detection timelines. Although this program is funded by the Air Force, we will have to coordinate and provide support because the Space Fence Operating Center is co-locating with our Space Operation Center.

"Additionally, the space fence radar will be emplaced on Kwajalein requiring even more coordination," he added. "RTS is a charter member of the Site Activation Task Force working group with the Air Force Space Fence Program Office and meet frequently to iron out any issues dealing with construction, land, facilities, environmental, estimates and etc."

NASA estimates that there are approximately 500,000 objects in orbit, ranging from full-size satellites to centimeter-sized debris. Space junk is a big worry for the Air Force, NASA and other agencies that rely on satellite communications.

"Look at this through strategic glasses or holistically first, virtually everything we do in the world today involves space; cable TV, satellite radio, GPS, banking transactions, finances, the stock market, Internet and of course, military and defense are only a few," Fairley said. "Furthermore, space is becoming contested, congested and competitive, and orbital collisions and the potential for collisions are increasing. With predictions and early warning, we can mitigate collisions by performing avoidance maneuvers or notify satellite owners in order to save satellites.
"From a Warfighter perspective, it preserves and protects space capabilities the Warfighter needs," he added.