It looks like US Air Force Space Command General William Shelton’s warnings are coming to pass: reduced budgets are endangering the Space Fence project. Designed to use a higher frequency radar than existing surveillance, the Space Fence is intended to track smaller debris objects than is currently practical from Earth’s surface. Construction of the first radar site at Kwajalein Island in the Republic of the Marshall Islands was originally scheduled to begin in September 2013; that date currently seems unlikely.
“We’re ready to award a contract for the Space Fence,” said Shelton on July 16, according to Defense News. “That award is being held up while we’re determining whether or not this is a priority for the department.”
The hold up was prompted by a Pentagon review of potential future budget cuts ranging from $100-$500 billion over the next decade. While there is no other comparable – or competing – debris monitoring initiative, Pentagon officials wish to secure funding under likely conditions for the duration of the contract before it is initiated.
“I can tell you from a personal perspective it’s a high priority for Air Force Space Command, and I think for the nation in terms of space situational awareness,” Shelton said. “So we’re hopeful that we’ll get authority to award that contract very shortly.”
The S-band radar will track debris as small as 9.5 cm in low and medium Earth orbits. It is expected to increase tracked debris by an order of magnitude, using “uncued” tracking which allows the system to identify collision debris more readily than earlier systems that must be primed with an expected location.
Both Lockheed Martin and Raytheon developed prototypes and submitted proposals for the Space Fence initiative. Below, a Raytheon video demonstrates their version of the debris-tracking tool.