Gen. William Shelton said he expects a contract award for the Space Fence in April 2014. Credit: U.S. Air Force

WASHINGTON — A patchwork of changes to the existing U.S. space-object tracking network, adopted to replace the recently shuttered Air Force Space Surveillance System (AFSSS), appears to be working as planned, according to Gen. William Shelton, commander of Air Force Space Command. 

In a Sept. 11 speech delivered via video at the Advanced Maui Optical and Space Surveillance Technologies conference in Hawaii, Shelton said, “Thus far it looks pretty good,” according to a transcript  made available Sept. 19.

The Air Force expects to save about $14 million a year by shutting down the AFSSS, informally known as the Space Fence. Consisting of a line of very-high-frequency radars stretching across the southern United States, the AFSSS is a key component of the overall U.S. Space Surveillance Network, which includes other ground- and space-based sensor assets. 

“Since we closed the Fence on the 1st of September, all of our predictions — and these are very early returns, I will admit that — but all of our predictions seem to be right on track,” Shelton said.

The changes implemented by Space Command included switching to modified operating modes for some of its other space tracking assets, specifically the Perimeter Acquisition Radar Characterization System at Cavalier Air Force Station in North Dakota and the space surveillance radar at Eglin Air Force Base in Florida.  

Because of these changes, Shelton said, the Air Force has retained certain tracking capabilities that were thought to be unique to the AFSSS.

Shelton said the number of observations of space objects at Cavalier has increased by about 30,000 per day.  At Eglin, Shelton said, there was one day during which the number of observations of space objects doubled. 

But Shelton characterized the modified network as a stopgap measure as the Air Force awaits deployment, now scheduled for late 2018, of the next-generation Space Fence able track much smaller objects in orbit. That effort was recently delayed by one year as the Air Force continues to grapple with budget problems.

Shelton took full responsibility for closing the AFSSS, which had been a key component of the Space Surveillance Network for decades.

“Now you are probably saying, ‘OK, Shelton, you are talking about radars being the workhorse, and you just closed the Space Fence.’ And I know with this crowd, that is probably not a very popular decision,” he said. “In a very difficult budget climate, we decided to go ahead and, I shouldn’t say ‘we’ — I decided to go ahead and close that Fence.”

Meanwhile Shelton said the Air Force is “working hard” to get a follow-on to the Space Based Space Surveillance Satellite into a future budget. Launched in September 2010, the satellite is intended to keep tabs on objects in space, particularly in geosynchronous orbit 36,000 kilometers above the equator — the operating location of most communications satellites.

Finally, Shelton said, a new space surveillance telescope at Kirtland Air Force Base, N.M. which completed its test period in August 2012 and offers a wide-angle view of small objects in space is “showing great promise” and could be used as a model for future ground-based opticals.

Mike Gruss is a senior staff writer for SpaceNews. He joined the publication in January 2013 to cover military space. Previously, he worked as a reporter and columnist for The Virginian-Pilot in Norfolk, Va. and The Journal Gazette in Fort Wayne, Ind. He...