Lockheed Martin has built a scaled-down version of the U.S. Air Force’s next-generation space surveillance system in New Jersey. Credit: Lockheed Martin.

A small white, windowless building near a Costco superstore in Moorestown, New Jersey, is helping usher in a new level of accuracy in detecting satellite maneuvers and avoiding debris on orbit.

The oddly shaped building sitting behind a tall chain link fence houses a $10 million prototype of the Space Fence, a next-generation radar system that Lockheed Martin is building in the South Pacific to enable the Air Force to dramatically expand the number of space objects it is able to detect, track and catalog.

The Space Fence Integration Test Bed that Lockheed Martin opened earlier this year in New Jersey has already tracked its first satellites, giving the Air Force a taste of what the full-scale system will be able to do.

Now in the home stretch of its decade-long development, the conversation about Space Fence has shifted from the nuts and bolts of the radar’s cost and schedule to how the Air Force will take advantage of the more powerful system to help predict and prevent space-based collisions.

“In a word, Space Fence will revolutionize space situational awareness,” declares a Lockheed Martin promotional video.

Improved space situational awareness is a pillar of the Air Force’s vision for protecting its satellites from orbital debris strikes and deliberate attacks, especially as the Pentagon expects increased threats to national security satellites.

The Air Force’s Space Surveillance Network of radars and other sensors currently tracks about 23,000 space objects, including satellites and orbital debris down to 10 centimeters in size. The Space Fence, once operational, is expected to be able to track an estimated 200,000 objects, including debris as small as 5 centimeters.

“It’s a real game changer,” said Dana Whalley, the Air Force’s Space Fence program manager. During a visit to the site in New Jersey, Whalley likened previous space surveillance capabilities to searching a dark attic with a flashlight. With Space Fence, he said, “we’re going to turn the light on for the whole attic.”

It’s an apt description for a Space Fence the Air Force is counting on to provide un-cued 24/7 coverage of an increasingly congested and contested near-space environment.

The Air Force initiated the Space Fence program in 2005 to replace the VHF Air Force Space Surveillance System — whose network of separate transmitting and receiving stations spread across the southern United States and were decommissioned in 2013 — with a couple of geographically dispersed S-band phased-array radar sites.

After several years of concept studies and risk-reduction efforts, Lockheed Martin beat out Raytheon in 2014 for a $914 million fixed-price Engineering, Manufacturing, Development, Production and Deployment contract to build the first Space Fence site on an island in the Kwajalein Atoll some 3,900 kilometers southwest of Hawaii.

Construction is underway there on a three-building sensor site housing a receive array roughly the area of two basketball courts and a separate, smaller transmit array. Scheduled to enter service in 2018 and operate for at least 25 years, the 650-square-meter array is the largest radar ever built for the Air Force.

The Air Force plans to decide by next summer whether to have Lockheed Martin construct a second identical sensor site in western Australia to improve the Space Fence’s assured coverage of lower altitudes. Assuming the Air Force picks up Lockheed’s contract option, the Australia site could enter service in 2021.

The primary Space Fence operations center will be based in Huntsville, Alabama — where a ribbon cutting is expected later this year — limiting to about a dozen the number of workers needed in hard-to-reach Kwajalein.

The working, scalable Space Fence prototype Lockheed built in suburban New Jersey is allowing Lockheed and the Air Force to work out various kinks before the full-scale system goes on line in 2018. Despite being just three percent the size of the sensor site being built in Kwajalein, the New Jersey test bed is already following about 850-1,000 objects. Lockheed Martin officials said the New Jersey site meets 70 percent of the Air Force’s system requirements for the full project, an achievement that Air Force and Lockheed Martin officials say bodes well for smoother construction and operations on Kwajalein.

“We spent a lot of money building a prototype… it’s working today, and because it’s working today we’re confident that the new system is going to work as well,” Gen. John Hyten, the head of Air Force Space Command, said in April. “We’ve retired risk; we put it in the right contextual environment and we’re getting benefit out of it.”

Lockheed Martin artist's concept of the full-sized Space Fence sensor site.
Lockheed Martin artist’s concept of the full-sized Space Fence sensor site.
Lockheed Martin artist’s concept of the full-sized Space Fence sensor site.

U.S. government officials say the Space Fence program is on schedule and on budget. Senate appropriators, in drafting a 2017 defense spending bill, praised the Air Force for its management of the program, hailing Space Fence as “one of the few space programs currently on schedule and on budget.”

The spending bill, which hasn’t moved since clearing the Senate Appropriations Committee in May, urged the Air Force to study moving ahead with building the second Space Fence sensor site.

With few hiccups on the development effort to date, the little discussion that has been held publicly about Space Fence has focused on how the first weeks of operations will play out. The Kwajalein site is expected to detect, track and catalog orbital objects more than 1.5 million times each day. The line of space-tracking radars the Air Force shut down in 2013 could perform 5 million detections per month.

Within the first few days of Space Fence operations, the Air Force’s space object catalog is expected to swell to 200,000 tagged objects, up from the 23,000 objects in the catalog today.

That impending flood of data is prompting questions about how the new data will affect day-to-day operations. Will satellite operators receive significantly more potential collision avoidance notifications related to smaller pieces of debris? Or will the greater accuracy result in fewer false alarms?

Partly in preparation for this coming deluge, the Air Force has been working on another $1 billion project — a software and hardware upgrade to the Joint Space Operations Center at Vandenberg Air Force Base in California. The JSpOC tracks space objects and issues collision warnings. The JSpOC Mission System upgrades underway are about 19 months behind schedule but expected to be ready to ingest Space Fence data around mid-2018, a due date that leaves little margin for error.

“Space Command is looking at how you to bring our data into the JSpOC without flooding the place,” Whalley said. “There are a lot of different ways you can do it.”

For example, he said, this could include starting with data on space objects that are already in the Air Force catalog and waiting to add newly identified objects to the database.

The Air Force is expected to conduct its first exercise between the Space Fence and JMS in December.

During the Space Fence’s first weeks in service, Whalley expects Lockheed Martin and the Air Force will concentrate on bringing the largest objects Kwajalein detects into the Air Force catalog first. Once that’s done, the Air Force will begin tracking how objects and their orbits have changed since their previous detections. As operators’ comfort with the system grows, the Air Force can cue the Space Fence to search for objects in a specific area and help operators more accurately re-construct events, such as collisions.

But some industry sources told SpaceNews they’re worried Space Fence data will hit choke points, leaving much of the collected radar data unused.

Andrew D’Uva, an adviser to the Space Data Association — a group of global satellite fleet operators that pools data on satellite locations, maneuvers and broadcast frequencies — said the problem of space surveillance is not a lack of sensing radars but the Air Force’s ability to ingest and process space surveillance data.

“Until capabilities such as those anticipated in the JSpOC Mission System or commercial alternatives are successfully fielded, more sensor data alone is unlikely to address the fundamental space situational awareness challenges or set the conditions necessary for effective space traffic management,” he said. “I have seen little to suggest that existing or planned government information processing capabilities would be able to effectively use Space Fence data today.”

Space Fence officials say this year will be a test for the program. Lockheed Martin needs to complete construction of the Kwajalein site and the radars themselves while finishing development of the software that will run the radars.

The Space Fence prototype in New Jersey provides the ability for “as much testing as you could possibly do,” said Bruce Fredericks, Lockheed Martin’s radar lead.

This is not Lockheed Martin’s first experience building a prototype of the Space Fence. The Air Force required a working demonstration as part of the competition with Raytheon. Lockheed Martin built an earlier demonstration unit that began tracking objects in 2011. That site, near the current test bed, is used for firmware development now.

The test bed has already proven useful to Lockheed Martin. In building the New Jersey site, they’ve learned hundreds of lessons, including things as mundane as how to best unload some of the radar equipment as they’re delivered to the construction site. Fredericks said once Space Fence is operational, the company can test software updates and patches or even troubleshoot from New Jersey using the test bed, before making a change to the Kwajalein site.

The test bed may also prove out another capability as well. Because of its relatively low cost, quick construction and small size, Bruce Schafhauser, Lockheed Martin’s program manager, said the company is considering the business case for re-creating the test bed radars to load on a truck and provide limited space situational awareness on demand.
This feature originally appeared in the Sept. 12 issue of SpaceNews.

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.