Space Fence. Credit: Lockheed Martin

WASHINGTON — As the U.S. Air Force wraps up its evaluation of competing proposals to build a next-generation space surveillance system, one of the two bidders for the contract, Lockheed Martin Corp., offered a glimpse of some of the system’s advanced capabilities.

In a briefing with reporters April 22, Steve Bruce, vice president for advanced systems at Lockheed Martin Mission Systems and Training of Moorestown, N.J., also said the company believes there are civilian markets for some of the capabilities it has developed under the long-running Space Fence development program.

Lockheed Martin and Raytheon Integrated Defense Systems of Tewksbury, Mass., have spent years developing competing designs and prototypes for the new Space Fence, which will be capable of tracking greater numbers of smaller objects than current U.S. space surveillance assets.

Air Force and industry officials have said that after multiple delays, a final prime contract award, worth more than $1 billion, is expected in May.

Lockheed Martin and Raytheon submitted new proposals in February following the most recent delay, but Bruce said little has changed in the Air Force’s requirements except for completion dates and some minor adjustments to pricing. Air Force officials have said the latest delay would add about $70 million to the cost of the program.

In the briefing, Bruce offered a fairly in-depth look at what a Lockheed Martin-built Space Fence would entail. Specifically, he said, the Space Fence would track about 200,000 objects and make 1.5 million observations per day, about 10 times the number made by previous radars such as the Air Force’s recently mothballed Space Surveillance System (AFSSS). Air Force leaders have estimated that the actual number of objects orbiting Earth is closer to 500,000.

While the AFSSS tracked objects 30 centimeters or larger in diameter, this Space Fence would track objects 5 centimeters or larger, Lockheed Martin said. A golf ball is roughly 4 centimeters in diameter.

The new system would have a maximum coverage area of 40,000 kilometers, whereas the previous AFSSS covered 22,000 kilometers maximum, Bruce said

Asked to respond to Lockheed Martin’s comments, Mike Nachshen, a spokesman for Raytheon, did not offer details on his company’s competing proposal. In a April 22 email, Nachshen said only that the “Space Fence will provide the U.S. Air Force with enhanced space situational awareness and is vital to our national security. Raytheon is confident of our solution and looks forward to the Air Force’s decision.”

Bruce said that using a prototype at Lockheed Martin’s Moorestown facility, the company demonstrated myriad scenarios for the Air Force including an extensive simulation of the full system.

The first Space Fence radar site will be located on Kwajalein Atoll in the Pacific Ocean, near the equator. That site will provide about 80 percent of the full program’s envisioned capability, Bruce said. He expects that details on a possible second site, planned for western Australia, would not be released until after the first site is declared operational, which is expected in 2018.

Bruce described the schedule for completing the first site as “low risk.”

The Air Force’s budget request for fiscal year 2015 does not include funding for a second site through at least 2019. Bruce said the Space Fence contract would nonetheless include a priced option for that site.

“It’s not like the system doesn’t work if you only have one site,” he said.

Both Lockheed Martin and Raytheon have said they submitted fixed-price incentive fee proposals to the Air Force.

In the past, Lockheed Martin has suggested that the technology it has developed under the Space Fence program could be attractive to other nations developing their own space surveillance capabilities. Asked to elaborate, Bruce mentioned prospective domestic civilian applications, including a replacement for the U.S. government’s Nexrad network of ground-based Doppler weather radars or a long-range air traffic management radar for the contiguous United States.

The Space Fence is one of the biggest space-related defense contracts up for grabs this year. Industry analysts say they fully anticipate that whichever company loses the competition will protest the award.

Mike Gruss covers military space issues, including the U.S. Air Force and Missile Defense Agency, for SpaceNews. He is a graduate of Miami University in Oxford, Ohio.