New 'space fence' tries to identify, track the growth of space junk

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Gravity is pulling the Chinese space station Tiangong-1 to Earth this weekend. That potential crash is a good example of the peril people on Earth face as more countries and private companies launch satellites for communications and surveillance. A new r (KGO-TV)

Gravity is pulling the Chinese space station Tiangong-1 to Earth this weekend. That potential crash is a good example of the peril people on Earth face as more countries and private companies launch satellites for communications and surveillance. A new radar system is trying to create order out of congestion in space.

The best guess is there's a constellation of 29,000 objects in space, known as space junk. Federal agencies have tried to catalog and track them. The objects in low orbit can fall to earth due to the earth's gravity.

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Space junk can very in size from a full-sized satellite no longer in operation to fragments the size of a softball or even smaller. Regardless of size, space junk poses risk to other satellites and even to people on Earth.

A collision between two spacecraft in 2009 over Siberia created an estimated 2,000 pieces of debris. So, identifying, tracking and forecasting their movement are critical steps.

Lockheed Martin has just completed a new radar facility on an atoll in the Marshall Islands that will be part of an Air Force project called Space Fence. As the amount of space junk grows, it will add them to a catalog and keep them under surveillance.

"Whereas some of the current radar can just track one object at a time, Space Fence is literally capable of tracking thousands of objects at the same time," said Robert Condren, senior project manager of Space Fence at Lockheed Martin.

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Space Fence also has the capability to analyze an object's movement and project its future path. The radar facility's location in the middle of the Pacific is strategic to track debris.

"They inevitably cross the equator and by putting a large radar near the equator, you have more viewing opportunities to see the objects," said Lockheed Martin's Condren.

Telescopes remain a tool for finding space junk. Lockheed Martin operates a space object tracking facility in the Santa Cruz mountains that help to classify what objects are. A similar facility is being added in Australia.

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