U.S. To Declare Space Fence Operational

Credit: NASA

The commander of the U.S. Space Force said the service will declare its space surveillance system, known as Space Fence, initially operational March 27.

Gen. Jay Raymond added that the service also used its Space Surveillance Telescope (SST) in Australia for the first time this past week.

Made by Lockheed Martin, Space Fence is expected to vastly increase the number of objects in orbit that can be tracked from Earth. Located on Kwajalein Atoll in the Marshall Islands, the system uses S-band ground-based radars featuring gallium nitride semiconductors to detect, track and measure space objects. 

The current tracking system keeps tabs on some 20,000 objects located directly overhead up to 12,000 km (7,456 mi) altitude. According to Lockheed, Space Fence will allow tracking of about 100,000 objects, primarily in low Earth orbit, with better accuracy. It also is expected to boost the Space Force’s ability to track resident space objects in geostationary orbit. 

SST, which began as a DARPA project, was moved from New Mexico to Australia in 2016. Positioned there, the telescope may track satellites flying over the Western Pacific and the Indian Ocean. 

While the two events might make for a huge upgrade in capability, Brian Weeden, director of program planning at the Secure World Foundation, says it is hard to know for sure. 

“I haven’t seen any details from the Space Force on how the new Space Fence is performing or how many additional objects it’s tracking,” Weeden said. “Likewise for the SST—we haven’t heard many details about its performance.”

Even though Space Fence is likely to track more objects, nothing else in the Space Surveillance Network can track them. “You generally need more than one station tracking to keep the position updated. And I’ve heard mixed things about the ability to integrate all the new data from the Space Fence into the existing databases and algorithm because of the delays in replacing the legacy computer systems,” he said. 

Plus, the Air Force’s former Joint Space Operations Center Mission System, being designed to manage space situational awareness, was canceled last year. As of last fall, requirements had not yet been fully defined for its successor program, Space Command and Control, according to the U.S. Government Accountability Office.

Jen DiMascio

Based in Washington, Jen previously managed Aviation Week’s worldwide defense, space and security coverage.