Kwajalein Island
Lockheed Martin said it had broken ground on the Space Fence site on Kwajalein Island (above) in the Pacific Ocean. Credit: U.S. Army

Updated at 12:10 p.m. EDT Oct. 1

WASHINGTON — The U.S. Air Force has signed off on Lockheed Martin’s final design for a next-generation space surveillance radar, paving the way for construction of the billion-dollar sensor to begin, the company announced Sept. 28.

Lockheed Martin Mission Systems and Training of Moorestown, New Jersey, in June 2014 won the $914 million contract to build the Space Fence, an S-band phased-array radar that the Air Force says will improve its ability to detect and track Earth orbiting objects.

A critical component of Defense Department efforts to better understand and characterize the near-Earth space environment, particularly in light of growing congestion and threatening activities, the Space Fence is expected to detect, without being prompted, baseball-sized objects at distances as far as 1,900 kilometers.

In its press release, Lockheed Martin said it had already broken ground on the Space Fence site on Kwajalein Island in the Pacific Ocean about 3,400 kilometers southwest of Honolulu.

The critical design review, an important milestone in development programs, was conducted over a three-day period and featured a space-tracking demonstration using a small-scale system, the press release said. During the competitive phase of the Space Fence program, Lockheed Martin and rival Raytheon Integrated Defense Systems of Tewksbury, Massachusetts, were required to build sub scale demonstration radars.

Steve Bruce, vice president for advanced systems at Lockheed Martin Mission Systems and Training, said the prototype used in the critical design review was an upgraded version of the one developed in the competitive phase of the program. Lockheed Martin is working on a more advanced prototype — Bruce characterized it as a mini version of the operational system — that will demonstrate 70 percent of Space Fence capabilities in February, he told reporters in an Oct. 1 conference call.

The Air Force requested $244 million for the Space Fence for the fiscal year that begins Oct. 1, a $44 million increase over the 2015 budget. However, Congress on Sept. 30 passed a continuing resolution that funds federal activities at 2015 levels at least until Nov. 11.

Bruce said the continuing resolution will have no impact on the Space Fence development program assuming it is immediately replaced with a 2016 spending bill that funds the effort at the requested level. However, there will be some schedule impact if the stopgap funding measure is extended much beyond December, he said.

According to the press release, the Space Fence is on track to begin operations in late 2018. At that time, the Air Force would begin work, assuming it has the funding, on a second site in Australia, which would become operational around 2022.

Bruce said the Kwajalein site will deliver 80 percent of the overall capability envisioned for the Space Fence. The addition of the Australian site will improve the timeliness and accuracy of observations, he said.

Warren Ferster is the Editor-in-Chief of SpaceNews and is responsible for all the news and editorial coverage in the weekly newspaper, the Web site and variety of specialty publications such as show dailies. He manages a staff of seven reporters...