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Shiny New Space Fence To Monitor Orbiting Junk

samzenpus posted more than 4 years ago | from the good-space-fences-make-good-neighbors dept.

Space 76

coondoggie writes "Some work has begun on tracking and detecting the overabundance of space junk which has become a growing priority as all manner of satellites, rockets and possible commercial space shots are promised in the coming few years. Today Northrop Grumman said it grabbed $30 million from the US Air Force to start developing the first phase of a global space surveillance ground radar system. The new S-Band Space Fence is part of the Department of Defense's effort to detect and track what are known as resident space objects (RSO), consisting of thousands of pieces of space debris as well as commercial and military satellites. The new Space Fence will replace the current VHF Air Force Space Surveillance System built in 1961."

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76 comments

Even money bet that Northrup Grumman (3, Insightful)

yourpusher (161612) | more than 4 years ago | (#28711399)

has created a sizeable percentage of the space-junk it's now offering to track.

Nifty business model, that.

Space junk (1, Informative)

Anonymous Coward | more than 4 years ago | (#28711991)

Probably nothing compared to the tests the russans [wikipedia.org] or chinese [wikipedia.org] did.

Here in the UK... (4, Informative)

Anonymous Coward | more than 4 years ago | (#28712273)

We have a system called NaviSys IV. The project has been going on since the '70s and originally involved large UHF and SHF antennas on balloons/blimps. That idea did not work out well as constant monitoring eventually was needed for tracking spy satellites and movements (e.g. attitude correction), and we went with a ground-based operation either running at L or S-band, but I can't remember which.

I used to be a technician for the tracking consoles back in the '80s before everything became fully automated. Everything then was mundane as it is now, and the old technology worked very well. Supposedly objects about a half metre were tracked, but that was "classified" information at the time.

It would appear to me that an American corporation is just trying to get yet another contract to do the same thing that they have been doing for years. VHF/UHF has some disadvantages, but the system in place is (or at least was) similar to the UK's. It looks like yet another money grab by the contractors to replace something that is fully functional and could operate for a generation or two at a nominal cost. What, after all, is a mere $30 million USD, though?

I sigh when I read these articles.

Uhhh, mods? (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 4 years ago | (#28712367)

Would someone please mod this gentleman up?

Re:Here in the UK... (2, Interesting)

Bakkster (1529253) | more than 4 years ago | (#28715263)

Everything then was mundane as it is now, and the old technology worked very well. Supposedly objects about a half metre were tracked, but that was "classified" information at the time.

Did you actually read the article? The current system tracks objects 4 inches and larger in diameter. The new system will track objects as small as 1/2 inch in diameter.

FTA:
"the United States Space Surveillance Network, managed by U.S. Strategic Command, is tracking more than 19,000 objects in orbit about the Earth, of which approximately 95 percent represent some form of debris. However, these are only the larger pieces of space debris, typically four inches or more in diameter. The number of debris as small as half an inch exceeds 300,000. Due to the tremendous energies possessed by space debris, the collision between a piece of debris only a half-inch in diameter and an operational spacecraft, piloted by humans or robotic, has the potential for catastrophic consequences, he stated."

It would appear to me that an American corporation is just trying to get yet another contract to do the same thing that they have been doing for years. VHF/UHF has some disadvantages, but the system in place is (or at least was) similar to the UK's. It looks like yet another money grab by the contractors to replace something that is fully functional and could operate for a generation or two at a nominal cost. What, after all, is a mere $30 million USD, though?

FTA:
"The current system requires constant sustainment intervention to maintain operations and does not address the growing population of small and micro satellites in orbit, Northrop stated."

At some point, maintenence costs on big systems like these get too high. A replacement system will not only operate better, but cheaper. Either replace it now and shut off the old system when we're done, or wait until the old system fails and scramble to build a new system (rushed development produces errors and costs more).

VHF fence is aging rapidly (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 4 years ago | (#28717603)

I have worked on various updates to this system over the last 15 years or so. It is quickly approaching the end of its useful life, with the antenna fields going onto 20+ years in service--and these are *big* antennas, hundreds or thousands of feet long each and there are 6 receiver stations and 3 transmitter. Many parts are no longer made, and have been replaced with more modern parts over time, but that can only go on so long before the result simply is unacceptable.

Plus, the VHF is limited in the size of the objects it can see.

A replacement has been in the planning stages since the mid-90's at least.

Re:Here in the UK... (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 4 years ago | (#28717685)

The problem is the accuracy, and is a problem more slashdotters can understand.

Not only are the radar hardware systems changing, but also the way that they store and process data.

The legacy system is/was using Classical Oribital Elements (See the section on Keplerian elements here: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Orbital_elements [wikipedia.org]) which are using a series of angles to track the position of the debris. These are usually sent out from the Air Force using a data format of "Two Line Elements" or TLEs (http://celestrak.com/NORAD/documentation/tle-fmt.asp). This data storage mechanism and format is inherently inaccurate.

This new fence software system should be using the modernized version of the element sets, most likely some sort of cartesian (x,y,z) system for location determination, which should include a covariance of the position and velocity (basically how well you know the position of the object).

Bakkster hit it, but a few other points (1)

JohnnyComeLately (725958) | more than 4 years ago | (#28717709)

A company didn't just dream up an idea and then the government bought it. Acquisitions in the US Department of Defense don't operate that way. The services (US Army, Air Force, whoever) had a need for the capability, or to replace a system that wasn't sustainable (for whatever reason) and went through an analysis of what needed to be done and how current systems can or can't fulfill that role. When there's no system and the needs are there, then the DoD moves forward with a Request for Proposal. The economy is hurting so although I'm not familiar with this program, I'm somewhat certain there had to to be multiple defense companies that bid on it. The bidders go through a technical analysis in the Contracts shop, who work with the Program Office to rate the proposals. I could go on, but just google JCIDS [wikipedia.org] if you're interested.

The most notable debris creation in recent days was China blowing up their own satellite. It's the equiv in my book to taking a huge dump in your own frontyard and parking old, inoperable cars in the middle of your own driveway. It's dumb, not necessary and creates many potential problems down the road.

Re:Here in the UK... (1)

Dripdry (1062282) | more than 4 years ago | (#28718599)

On one hand you may be right. On the other, what was the size of the junk they could track? My understanding is that much of the space junk is very tiny (I think something the size of a small screw recently did severe damage to a window on the space shuttle) so perhaps the new technology is designed to find and track these very small objects.

I urge you to lose the Jews, white man (-1, Troll)

Anonymous Coward | more than 4 years ago | (#28712109)

With Jews you lose so to win you must lose the Jews.

Re:Even money bet that Northrup Grumman (1)

mrmeval (662166) | more than 4 years ago | (#28724715)

They may have made it but it was your benevolent government that caused it.

I figured DHS was involved in the space fence... (4, Funny)

Majik Sheff (930627) | more than 4 years ago | (#28711431)

To keep out the illegal aliens!

*insert rimshot here*

Re:I figured DHS was involved in the space fence.. (1)

JustOK (667959) | more than 4 years ago | (#28711891)

Or, to keep them in. Perhaps we're some sort of intergalactic Guantanamo for them.

Stop trying to plug D9 (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 4 years ago | (#28716385)

Stop trying to plug District 9. Whats this.. guerrilla marketing?

Re:I figured DHS was involved in the space fence.. (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 4 years ago | (#28718947)

That explains politicians.

Re:I figured DHS was involved in the space fence.. (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 4 years ago | (#28717167)

they tk 'r jubs!

Deorbit (2, Interesting)

Bruce Perens (3872) | more than 4 years ago | (#28711473)

We need to work on how to de-orbit it. My favorite scheme is to use infrared lasers to apply light pressure, and slowly change the orbit.

Re:Deorbit (4, Interesting)

vrmlguy (120854) | more than 4 years ago | (#28711535)

Launch water. You don't need to put the water into orbit, just release it in the path of whatever debris you want to deorbit and let your launcher fall back to earth. The debris loses velocity as it passes through a cloud of H2O molecules and slows down enough to re-enter the atmosphere. Sine you don't need the delta-v, the launches are fairly cheap, at least as long as we're at low altitudes.

Re:Deorbit (2, Insightful)

securityfolk (906041) | more than 4 years ago | (#28711625)

One problem with that - it's *cold* up there. The water would probably freeze the instant you launched it at something. Now, you could always put a heater up there to keep the water warm, but that results in more space junk.

Me, I think a giant space vacuum cleaner would do the job.. we just need to borrow one from the folk at Space Balls.

Now *that's* thinkin with yer dipstick!

Re:Deorbit (4, Informative)

MichaelSmith (789609) | more than 4 years ago | (#28711713)

Its not cold up there. Its in a vacuum. Vacuum doesn't have a temperature.

But liquid water released into a vacuum will partly sublimate and partly freeze. Then the frozen water will slowly sublimate as photons from the sun hit it. If you can disperse the water fast enough in vacuum it should sublimate fast because of the huge surface area.

A different liquid (like Nitrogen) may do a better job.

Re:Deorbit (1)

CarpetShark (865376) | more than 4 years ago | (#28715099)

Its not cold up there. Its in a vacuum. Vacuum doesn't have a temperature.

Vacuums are not absolute things though. Even deep space is not a perfect vacuum, and I'd imagine high orbit's quality of vacuum is far from perfect.

Re:Deorbit (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 4 years ago | (#28712159)

First the water boils, then freezes and then the UV radiation causes reactions within the molecules to create hydroxyl radicals.

Re:Deorbit (1)

thms (1339227) | more than 4 years ago | (#28713469)

That would not change the mass, something flying through this cloud would still be slowed down.

But I think these tiny molecules would quickly be pushed away by radiation pressure and maybe by whatever other part of the solar wind that makes it through earths magnetic field. UV radiation also ionizes, then you have charged molecules/atoms which allows one more force to interact with them.
Oh, and the boiling process would of course accelerate the particles in the first place, so a triple no-go!

Re:Deorbit (2, Interesting)

MichaelSmith (789609) | more than 4 years ago | (#28711661)

I definitely agree with the general idea but I am concerned that not enough water would sublimate during a suborbital lob. Ideally you want your payload to be liquid or solid at launch to save on structure in the launcher. You could pack it with an explosive but that got me thinking about this coke bottle which was in the back of my car rolling from side to side for hours until I cracked the seal and got myself covered with sticky muck.

So maybe we need a mixture of CO2 and H2O at moderate pressure to get maximum dispersion. Of course lots of countries are showing off their sounding rockets right now. Maybe this is a good job for them.

Re:Deorbit (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 4 years ago | (#28715479)

The average velocity of molecules in air at room temperature is something like 460 m/s. If you're trying to stick a cloud of gas in the path of some space junk you're going to have to get it timed just right because it'll get big fast.

How about using nitrogen or something else that's cheap and easy to work with and then containing it in a thin-walled balloon? An open-ended tube?

Re:Deorbit (1)

sumdumass (711423) | more than 4 years ago | (#28711721)

IT's kind of expensive to get water into space. If you think about it, the space shuttle can hold a payload of about 50k lbs. That would be roughly 5,995 gallons of water without any containment structure. Now the containers would probably have to consume 1/3 or more of that capacity because not only do you need to contain it, you need to make sure the containers will withstand the G-forces necessary for launch into orbit and because of that much water.

To give you an idea of how much water 5,995 gallons is, imagine a swimming pool in an oval shape of 12' by 24' and 6 foot deep (about 5,948 gallons). If you loose 1/3 or so because of the container, you are looking at something more like the amount of water in a 12 foot round pool at 6' deep which is about 2,975 gallons. At 15' round pool is close to 5,310 gallons.

Another problem with water floating in space, how would we keep it selective in only de-orbiting what is junk and not what is in use?

Re:Deorbit (5, Interesting)

MichaelSmith (789609) | more than 4 years ago | (#28711763)

Its expensive to get water into orbit. It is much less expensive to get it directly into space so it falls straight back. You don't want it to be in orbit anyway. You just want a cloud which the debris goes through.

Re:Deorbit (1)

sumdumass (711423) | more than 4 years ago | (#28711781)

But something has to hit orbit in order to get it there doesn't it?

Never mind, I just remembered how short range ICBMs work.

Re:Deorbit (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 4 years ago | (#28712363)

Can you imagine the size of that water globe floating around, orbiting the Earth? I bet it would be pretty sweet.

Re:Deorbit (1)

vrmlguy (120854) | more than 4 years ago | (#28726059)

IT's kind of expensive to get water into space. [...] Another problem with water floating in space, how would we keep it selective in only de-orbiting what is junk and not what is in use?

MichaelSmith [slashdot.org] has already provided a general answer, but here's some numbers to go with it.

"Look," Musk says, scribbling equations on a notepad, "the energy increases with the square of the velocity. To go 60 miles into suborbital space, like Rutan and the X-Prize, you need to travel at Mach 3. The square of that is 9. But to get to orbit, you need to go Mach 25, and the square of that is 625. So you're looking at something that takes 60 to 70 times more energy. And then, to come back, you need to unwind that energy in a meteoric fireball, and if there's one violation of integrity, you're toast."

Elon Musk Is Betting His Fortune on a Mission Beyond Earth's Orbit [wired.com]

Of course, we don't care as much about the return trip. We don't care at all about the water, and if we want to reuse the carrier, it's falling like SpaceShip One, not a space shuttle.

Re:Deorbit (2, Informative)

Bruce Perens (3872) | more than 4 years ago | (#28711867)

That is how satellite killer missles work. Unfortunately, any solution to this problem must take into account the fact that there are many thousands of pieces of space junk big enough to track.

Re:Deorbit (1)

JustOK (667959) | more than 4 years ago | (#28711907)

Talk talk talk. Someone launch some damn water already so we can actually see what happens. Geez, do I have to think of everything?

Re:Deorbit (1)

RenderSeven (938535) | more than 4 years ago | (#28712403)

Right you are! You grab some water balloons and I'll put together 12 miles of rubber tubing. Wham-O is going into the launch business!

Re:Deorbit (1)

fractoid (1076465) | more than 4 years ago | (#28712757)

In fact, it doesn't need to be water; anything will do. The most efficient way to do it in future might even be to build a rail gun and launch a small (few tens of kilograms) projectile with a timed explosive. Projectile gets out of the atmosphere, projectile explodes into a cloud of debris, target hits debris and slows down, debris falls back to earth (it's on a straight up-and-down trajectory, not an orbital path) and burns up on re-entry because it's now the consistency of sand.

Current railguns can't do this, as their peak muzzle velocity is only around 3km/s, but the U.S. navy is researching them and there's no real theoretical limit (to my knowledge).

Re:Deorbit (1)

Big Hairy Ian (1155547) | more than 4 years ago | (#28714153)

If you are going to target specific Junk with this idea why bother sending up water when you can use a LOX/Hydrogen propellant? Simply Launch your vehicle through your targets upcoming orbit and the contrail can do the rest. Given that there is no requirement for a payload this gives some scope to actually de-orbit & re-use the vehicle parts.

HTH

Re:Deorbit (0, Offtopic)

Aldenissin (976329) | more than 4 years ago | (#28711563)

Hi Bruce, Just wanted to go off topic and say that I appreciated watching you in REVOLUTION OS. I knew that I knew the name as soon as I saw your post. I clicked on you sig, read what you are into and it clicked who you were. I am always reminded of how small of a world it is.

Re:Deorbit (1, Funny)

Anonymous Coward | more than 4 years ago | (#28711597)

Bruce, could those be frickin' infared lasers?

I like where you're going with this.

Re:Deorbit (1)

Ozlanthos (1172125) | more than 4 years ago | (#28712215)

I was thinking "recover and recycle the stuff". I mean really, it wasn't that cheap to build them and put them up there, I am sure that some of the stuff floating around up there is still worth quite a bit of money. Maybe if it could be done via remote control we could even save the expenses associated with sending people into space to do the job.

-Oz

Re:Deorbit (1)

maxume (22995) | more than 4 years ago | (#28714667)

Paint chips and hammers and fragments of exploding bolts and fragments of exploding satellites?

Not worth anything.

public info (1)

parcanman (933838) | more than 4 years ago | (#28711585)

I wonder if any of the info will be considered public info, and if so, how many of the satellites up there will be considered "non existent".

Planetes? (4, Informative)

ArchMageZeratuL (1276832) | more than 4 years ago | (#28711651)

This reminds me of Planetes, a TV anime series by NHK (the Japanese equivalent of PBS/BBC) about the consequences of runaway space garbage in the near future (2072) of humanity. It's an interesting story, and it gets major extra points from me for being remarkably realistic.

If they increase the range.... (1)

Cur8or (1220818) | more than 4 years ago | (#28711703)

we'll have up to a 30 second warning of an approaching meteorite .

Re:If they increase the range.... (1)

x2A (858210) | more than 4 years ago | (#28712357)

FFS!!! Don't go telling them that the solar system can launch a devisatating attack in just 30-45 seconds, what do you want, a war on space?!!

Obligatory Spaceballs Reference (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 4 years ago | (#28711757)

Isn't it obvious that instead of something to track space-junk, we need "Mega-Maid" instead?

The Real Reason for the Space Fence... (0)

Jah-Wren Ryel (80510) | more than 4 years ago | (#28711871)

The real reason for this space fense is to keep the illegal aliens out.
It's just not politically correct to discriminate against the Earth-challenged, so they have to come up with some other justification.

I say we reformat earth's sattelites. (0)

dicobalt (1536225) | more than 4 years ago | (#28711931)

Send up an assload of H bombs and clear out all the stuff in orbit. Nuclear disarmament and housekeeping, 2 birds with one stone. Oh wait, the whole lack of air problem would probably ruin this solution huh? But it would look super cool.

Re:I say we reformat earth's sattelites. (1)

sydney094 (153190) | more than 4 years ago | (#28712021)

Didn't you see Superman 2? A nuclear explosion in space could send super villains to enslave us all!

Looks like we'll need some space trashmen soon (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 4 years ago | (#28711977)

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6Fy7psIuJjc

Trapped on earth (4, Interesting)

EZLeeAmused (869996) | more than 4 years ago | (#28712001)

Didn't Arthur C. Clark or someone theorize that at some point in any space-faring civilization, they would lose (at least temporarily) the ability to return to space due to the density of debris orbiting their planet?

Fatal Attraction (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 4 years ago | (#28712081)

I picture a huge solar powered electromagnet - that just attracts the junk - if it's metal junk of course.

Re:Fatal Attraction (1)

Grishnakh (216268) | more than 4 years ago | (#28712151)

Probably won't work. It would only work for ferrous metal junk. Because iron and steel are quite heavy, and spacecraft designers trim weight as much as possible since it requires fuel, most space equipment is probably made of aluminum and titanium instead, and those are non-magnetic.

Since we are talking about fabulously insane ideas (1)

dhudson0001 (726951) | more than 4 years ago | (#28712181)

Let's just send a giant magnet up and start over...

Re:Since we are talking about fabulously insane id (1)

CarpetShark (865376) | more than 4 years ago | (#28715163)

Let's just send a giant magnet up and start over...

Giant magnets are hard to come by these days. It used to be, the earth naturally contained many thousands of millions of tons of giant magnets. Even amateurs long ago could dig them up and get themselves into all sorts of unexpected trouble. Now, things are different. We've devastated our natural resources, and man-made electromagnets just don't work the same way. In fact, that's the primary reason you don't see many giants loping around the hills waving clubs any more.

Wasn't this covered in the TV show Quark? (2, Funny)

Dr_Marvin_Monroe (550052) | more than 4 years ago | (#28713083)

I'm pretty sure that Quark covered the "Space Garbage Collection" technology... Why haven't we implemented this?

There's really no need... (2, Funny)

triffid_98 (899609) | more than 4 years ago | (#28713477)

In a few months we'll have Large Hadron Collider back online. The black holes are sure to clean up this mess once they've collected enough planetary mass.

Re:There's really no need... (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 4 years ago | (#28715633)

The black holes don't magically pull harder on objects. If a blackhole in the LHC ate the earth then those debris would still be in orbit ; but in orbit around a black hole.

It would resolve the probleme though, as the demand for satelites would drop.

Space trash collection satellite (1)

cvtan (752695) | more than 4 years ago | (#28714401)

Perhaps we need a satellite spacebot that goes around collecting trash. After all, what environment does not benefit from a little light housekeeping? It's the green thing to do! This idea sounds like a great opportunity for a bit of private enterprise. Instead of "Pigs in Space" it would be "Goats in Space". After enough junk is collected, it could be auctioned off to collectors, brought down to a landfill, crashed into the ocean or rained down on Osama. And what are the rules of salvage in space anyway?

Re:Space trash collection satellite (1)

KurtisKiesel (905982) | more than 4 years ago | (#28714997)

And what are the rules of salvage in space anyway? Finders keepers. The spacebot would have to change altitude and direction a lot. Somehow I think fuel would become a big issue. If it collected it would also gain more mass and require more fuel to change direction and altitude. Collecting does not seem to be the answer because of mass. It would have to be a pretty inteligent bot if it were to release water vapor clouds as well. You might inadvertently take down something important that can not correct it's own altitude quick enough. I think the whole idea is a nightmare in logistics and devise, it could take a really long time to devise a workable solution/

solar shield (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 4 years ago | (#28714745)

How much of the sun's radiation do you suppose the space junk is preventing from hitting the earth?

Concept Design Competition (1)

jyak (112533) | more than 4 years ago | (#28714835)

This article didn't seem to mention the fact that other companies also received the same amount for concept development.

http://www.boston.com/business/articles/2009/07/15/raytheon_gets_space_fence_contract/ [boston.com]
http://www.lockheedmartin.com/news/press_releases/2009/063009_LM_AirForce_SpaceFence.html [lockheedmartin.com]

Actually, after searching google news, no article paints the complete picture with awards going to all three competitors, Lockheed Martin, Northrop Grumman, and Raytheon.

Are any other satellite nerds worried about this?? (1)

carn1fex (613593) | more than 4 years ago | (#28721001)

For anyone else who works on satellite RF systems.. 768KW = 89dBm.. say around a 10dB antenna at Least.. maybe 600km spacecraft altitude... then you have your 30dB antenna, 30dB gain amp.. Basically your -60dB front end filter covering s-band aint gunna do the trick methinks.. I've just spent several weeks specifying and designing a massive front end filter then saw this.. screw it, im goin to the bar.
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