The idea of space defense exploded into the public consciousness in recent months thanks in large part to President Donald Trump’s directive to establish a space-based branch of the military tasked with precisely that, but within the defense community, space has long been a concern.
While the uninformed have levied debates about the militarization of space, the truth of the matter is, mankind’s endeavors into the heavens have always been associated with military pursuits, even if the governmental PR machine did an effective job of convincing the American people that it was spending billions of taxpayer’s dollars on the Gemini and Apollo programs for nothing more than national pride. From the moment Russia’s Sputnik satellite reached orbit, the United States has been vividly aware of the threat posed by a nation that dominated the skies above our heads, and in the intervening decades, that understanding has not waned.
While the Air Force already maintains a space command and both Russia and China already have space-based branches of their own militaries, many of America’s space defense endeavors continue to maintain that polished PR image born out of NASA’s early days. America’s national opponents also tend to follow suit, calling programs designed to capture, destroy, or de-orbit objects in the space around our planet “space junk” initiatives in polite meetings with foreign dignitaries, all the while aware that a platform designed to grab large pieces of junk would have little trouble latching onto satellites deemed integral for national defense. Fighting in space doesn’t need to look like Star Wars to be effective, in fact, often, all it needs to look like is a little nudge off of a satellite’s orbital track.
This is why, although neither Russia nor China publicly acknowledges the development of orbital weapons platforms, most defense officials within the United States predict low earth orbit will be ripe with potential threats within the next ten years.
Of course, once you start to recognize the nomenclature games played by space-faring nations to ensure their own orbital defense efforts aren’t painted as the “militarization of space” in public perceptions, it starts to get easier to find these endeavors. One such program, touted primarily as a means to track space junk, is Lockheed Martin’s Space Fence — an initiative funded by the U.S. Air Force that aims to identify and track the thousands of objects orbiting our “tiny blue dot.” Being able to effectively track that growing mass of space debris in orbit around the earth is, of course, integral to the success of any space mission. NASA currently estimates that there are over 500,000 individual pieces of space junk orbiting the planet at speeds in excess of 17.000 miles per hour, meaning effective tracking of these clouds of debris will grow more and more important as we launch more rockets. A single piece of fast-moving space junk could destroy a satellite, or worse, a manned spacecraft — and with half a million (and counting) to contend with, keeping an eye out for debris seems a worthy endeavor.
However, with all the emphasis Lockheed Martin and the Air Force have placed on tracking these pieces of space junk, there has been very little discussion into the defensive applications the Space Fence offers. The program, which relies on extremely powerful Gallium Nitride (GaN) powered S-band ground-based radars, can do a lot more than simply keep track of debris. As one Lockheed official put it:
It detects, tracks, and catalogues objects in LEO, MEO (medium Earth orbit), and GEO. It has the ability to simultaneously operate an un-cued surveillance fence and cued micro fences to gather more data on high interest objects. Due to its ability to detect small objects in LEO (down to approximately 1cm diameter with mini-cued fences), it is expected to grow the space catalog from approximately 20,000 objects currently up to 100,000 depending on the background assumptions.”
While that does sound like a capable system when it comes to tracking debris, it also makes it clear that the Space Fence will be an effective tool when it comes to identifying foreign satellites that are gathering intelligence over U.S. soil. It also means the Space Fence will be able to spot orbital weapons as they approach American assets. In some cases, the threatened satellite may be able to move, creating a more difficult target, in other instances, it may simply provide forewarning that a satellite may soon be rendered non-functional, and eventually, spotting these threats as they close in could offer the U.S. Space Force (or whoever is responsible for orbital defense) to initiate defensive measures.
A statement from Lockheed Martin reads:
Lockheed Martin’s Space Fence design will significantly improve the timeliness with which operators can detect space events, which could present potential threats to GPS satellites or the International Space Station. The flexibility and sensitivity of the system will provide coverage of deep space geosynchronous orbits while maintaining the surveillance fence.
So while the Space Fence initiative, which is rapidly approaching completion, is touted primarily as a means by which to protect America’s spacefaring endeavors from the threat of motive-less debris, the underlying message is clear: the Space Fence can keep track of threats of all sizes, shapes, and origins.
Because seeing a threat coming is the first step toward defending against it.
You can watch a “program overview” of the Space Fence produced by Lockheed Martin below:
Featured image: Lockheed Martin’s Space Fence design will significantly improve the timeliness with which operators can detect space events which could present potential threats to GPS satellites or the International Space Station. | Lockheed Martin