According to two recent memos obtained by SpaceNews, the Air Force will shut down the aging Air Force Space Surveillance System, also known informally as the Space Fence, Sept. 1. The U.S. Air Force's decision to shut down a key component of its Space Surveillance Network will weaken the service's ability to accurately detect and characterize objects in Earth orbit, experts say.
The space fence shutdown, ordered by Gen. William Shelton, commander of Air Force Space Command, also will reduce the overall capacity of the system, these experts said. At the same time, they suggested it could increase pressure on the Air Force to award a contract on a next-generation system, which has stalled amid a Pentagon-wide review of its acquisition plans.
The Space Fence, along with operators at the Joint Space Operations Center, can observe objects down to the size of a basketball and make precise determinations of their characteristics, location and movement. Each month the system is responsible for logging more than 5 million observations of space objects, according to an Air Force fact sheet.
Experts said without the Space Fence, the Air Force will have a harder time knowing when orbital collisions have occurred.
"It will be more difficult and take longer to detect and catalog new pieces of debris, especially those from large breakups," Weeden said. "And the loss of capacity likely means that we have less accurate orbits for a good portion of the space debris" in low Earth Orbit.
Lockheed Martin Mission Systems and Sensors of Moorestown, N.J., and Raytheon Integrated Defense Systems of Tewksbury, Mass., have developed competing designs for the new Space Fence.