WASHINGTON — Executives from the two companies competing to build the U.S. Air Force’s next-generation space-object tracking system said they are so confident the service has eliminated the common programmatic risks that cause delays and costs overruns that both submitted fixed-price proposals for the billion-dollar-plus contract.

Lockheed Martin Mission Systems and Sensors of Moorestown, N.J., and Raytheon Integrated Defense Systems of Tewksbury, Mass., have developed competing designs and prototypes for the new Space Fence, a ground-based radar system that would be capable of tracking greater numbers of smaller objects than current U.S. space surveillance assets.

Speaking here Oct. 9 during a panel discussion on space situational awareness hosted by the Space Foundation, representatives from the two companies said they believed the technology featured in their proposals is mature and ready to use. 

“We’ve shown we can build systems that do this,” said Robert Curbeam, a vice president with Raytheon Integrated Defense Systems, referring to working prototypes the companies built under competitive Space Fence design and development contracts.

The panelists agreed that building the Space Fence is the best way to improve U.S. space situational awareness, a critical capability as the orbital environment becomes increasingly crowded with both working satellites and, more significantly, hazardous debris. But the contract award, which had been expected this year, has been delayed until March 2014.  

On the positive side, the panelists said the hit movie “Gravity,” which grossed over $80 million worldwide in its opening weekend, is helping raise public awareness of the orbital debris hazard, which government and industry officials have warned could one day pose a threat to established satellite-based services such as navigation and weather forecasting.

“The fact that it’s setting all kind of box office records, it speaks to the average American citizen,” said Brendan Curry, vice president of Washington operations for the Space Foundation, a nonprofit organization dedicated to space advocacy and education.

“The release of the movie has helped out,” agreed Curbeam, a former NASA astronaut who performed seven spacewalks. “Having done spacewalks along the outside of the space station and seeing the damage caused by a micro-meteorite the size of a grain of sand, I can’t imagine if it was a large object that actually hit the vehicle. That would be pretty ugly.”

Steve Bruce, vice president of advanced systems for Lockheed Martin Mission Systems and Training, said the company’s Space Fence concept would be able to track objects the size of a baseball and possibly as small as a large marble.  

The Air Force has “driven all the risk out of the program,” Bruce said. Air Force leaders, using input from industry, went through an extraordinarily thorough and lengthy process of cost-benefit analysis while assembling the system’s requirements, he said.

The Air Force has spent at least $1.3 billion developing the program since 2006, according to the Government Accountability Office.

With the award of the Space Fence prime contract on hold, Lockheed Martin and Raytheon plan to bid on a possible bridge contract under which the Air Force would fund demonstrations of the system’s operational flexibility, Curbeam and Bruce said. In a notice dated Sept. 16, the Air Force said it anticipates awarding up to two firm-fixed-price contracts lasting 5.5 months. 

The activity will get the Air Force thinking “about how it wants to use the system,” Bruce said.

Air Force Brig. Gen. Robert McMurry, director of space programs in Office of the Assistant Secretary for Acquisition at the Pentagon, had been expected to be part of the discussion but did not attend because of the ongoing government shutdown..


U.S. Air Force Anticipates More Space Fence Studies

So Far, Stopgap Space Fence Replacement ‘Looks Pretty Good,’ Shelton Says

SN BLOG | Gen. Shelton on Space Fence Closure and the Road Ahead

With Current System Slated for Closure, Air Force Defers Next-gen Space Fence

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...