Things are falling from the skies at an alarming rate. With the on coming war in space heating up nicely, nations are starting to test all sorts of space-based weapons and killer satellites presumably in order to see some rad zero-gravity explosions. Whenever things go ‘boom,’ however, they tend to leave a whole lot of debris behind and, well, we all know what happens to things that go up.
In order to protect hapless civilians from the inevitable tons of flaming satellite shrapnel falling from space, the U.S. Air Force has recently tested a new technology it’s calling “Space Fence.” The system was designed by Lockheed Martin and was able to successfully detect and track the debris field left behind when India recently blew one of their own satellites to smithereens just for kicks.
Lockheed Martin doesn't share too many details about the system on its official Space Fence website other than that it consists of high-frequency radar positioned in such a way as to be able to accurately track the altitudes of small pieces of space debris in real time and "permit the detection of much smaller microsatellites and debris than current systems." According to Lockheed Martin, Space Fence will provide peaceful spacecraft with better defenses against space debris and "significantly improve the timeliness with which operators can detect space events, which could present potential threats to GPS satellites or the International Space Station." Of course, that also means the system will be able to better track adversaries' satellites, even tiny ones like Russia's 'nesting doll' satellites which are meant to latch onto and hijack other, larger satellites.
The system's true purpose can be gleaned from the language Lockheed and Air Force spokespersons use in the press release. Vice president and general manager of Radar and Sensor Systems for Lockheed Martin Dr. Rob Smith says in a press release that Space Fence will prove to be an invaluable asset as near-Earth orbits become increasingly crowded, enabling "warfighters" to be more aware of the space battlefield:
The criticality of space assets to both national defense and the world economy cannot be understated. As multiple new mega constellations consisting of thousands of satellites become a reality and the space domain continues to become more congested, the demand for more accurate and timely space situational awareness data will be of the utmost importance to the warfighter.
Colonel Stephen Purdy, Director of the Space Superiority Systems Directorate at the Space and Missile Systems Center at Los Angeles Air Force Base echoes Lockheed's vice president, likewise saying that "Space Fence is the latest in a long line of capabilities we are collectively bringing to the warfighter as we continue to build out space capabilities for the United States." Judging from the way Lockheed and Air Force execs describe the system, it's clear Space Fence is a primarily military tool that will benefit civilians as a side effect. I mean, who will oversee operations of the system? Why the Space Force, of course, making it the Space Force Space Fence. Space War I is coming soon, folks.
All this talk of protecting American spacecraft against space threats comes at a time when planetary defense seems to be getting more attention than ever from government agencies. Why the sudden focus on protecting the planet from near-Earth objects and space debris? Could an impact event be looming in our near future? A team of astronomers from University of Western Ontario thinks so, saying the risk may be higher than we currently know.
In a new study accepted for publication by the Royal Astronomical Society, Earth scientist David Clark and astronomers Paul Wiegert and Peter Brown write that this summer is the perfect time to analyze the risk of the Taurid meteor swarm. The Taurid swarm is one of the most well-known groups of meteors, creating bright meteor showers every Autumn as it encounters Earth. While the large majority of these are tiny meteoroids smaller than a grain of sand, the Taurid swarm has long been suspected of hiding larger asteroids or meteors in some of its branches. 2019 is predicted to be one of the most active years for the Taurid meteor showers, possibly even creating fireballs bright enough to be observed during the day.
The swarm will come within 30,000,000 km of the Earth in a few months, enabling scientists to better predict the path of the swarm in the future. "There has been great interest in the space community since we shared our results at the recent Planetary Defense Conference in Washington, DC," says David Clark. "There is strong meteoric and NEO evidence supporting the Taurid swarm and its potential existential risks but this summer brings a unique opportunity to observe and quantify these objects." Could these meteors or other near-Earth objects pose a greater risk than the public is aware of? We may soon find out. Let's hope that Space Fence works.