Back in 1957, our little corner of the universe changed forever when the Soviet Union launched Sputnik beyond our atmosphere. The space age began, a triumph for humankind, but also the dawn of a new sort of challenge: space waste. Why do we care? Because space waste has the potential to cause big problems if it collides with something important, say a shuttle, satellite, or an astronaut on a spacewalk.
Every time we launch something into space or objects up there collide, more space debris is created. So the waste floating above our heads is both natural (such as meteoroids) and artificial (such as broken satellites). It floats there because it is caught in the Earth’s gravitational pull, and it can stay there for centuries as long as it is above the atmosphere. Some bits have been hurtling along at speeds of about 17,500 mph.
So what is the solution? Lockheed Martin’s Space Fence is a fully digital S-band radar system built for the U.S. Air Force, developed in 2014 and under construction on Kwajalein Atoll in the Marshall Islands. It is expected to be fully operational in the last quarter of 2019.
The Space Fence will track space waste in an attempt to prevent collisions and is capable of identifying debris as small as about 4 inches. That way the junk can be avoided during crucial space launches and missions, and million dollar satellites can be shifted out of the way to prevent impact. Considering how reliant humanity is on things like cell phones, GPS, the internet, and coordinated airfare, the loss of some satellites could prove disastrous.