The U.S. is building a $914 million 'space fence'

The point: tracking space junk.

The United States Air Force awarded a $914 million contract to Lockheed Martin this week to build a "space fence."

Wait, they're building a fence in space?

No, not an actual, physical fence. In fact, the company will go nowhere near space for this. The space fence is actually an "advanced ground-based radar system" that will help the U.S. keep track of space debris.

So will it track all of the space debris NASA estimates to be orbiting Earth?

Nope. Lockheed Martin says that their system will be able to monitor more than 200,000 orbiting objects. NASA estimates there are 21,000 objects orbiting Earth that are larger than 10 cm, 500,000 between 1 and 10 cm, and more than 100 million that are less than 1 cm. There's still room for improvement, but Lockheed Martin's system will be better than the current system, which only tracks 20,000 orbiting objects and can't see objects smaller than the size of a basketball.

Ok, but why does the Air Force care about space debris?

I'll let Dale Bennett, executive VP at Lockheed Martin explain that one: "Space-based technologies enable daily conveniences such as weather forecasting, banking, global communications and GPS navigation, yet everyday these critical services are being threatened by hundreds of thousands of objects orbiting Earth. Space Fence will locate and track these objects with more precision than ever before to help the Air Force transform space situational awareness from being reactive to predictive."

That sounds important enough, but when will it begin tracking objects?

Lockheed Martin says that construction will begin in early 2015 and that it hopes to have the space fence operational by 2018.

Photo: Wikimedia Commons/NASA

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