Lockheed Martin on Monday won a highly anticipated contract to build a "space fence" for the Air Force that can track hundreds of thousands of pieces of debris floating around in space.
The Bethesda, Md.-based company beat out Raytheon for the $915 million contract to build the radar system, which would be located in the Marshall Islands in the Pacific Ocean.
Military officials say the space fence is vital for commerce and national security because there is so much junk orbiting the Earth that could collide with satellites used for everything from television to intelligence gathering and military communications.
The fence isn't really a fence, but rather a high-frequency radar that is like a flashlight beam in a dark room that illuminates the bits of dust swirling around. All those bits are then catalogued and tracked as they pass through the radar again and again, until analysts, using massive computer databases, can predict where those pieces of debris will be in the future and when they might come close enough to collide with something.
The system currently used by the Pentagon can track only a small fraction of the amount of space junk.
The new system will be able to track more and much smaller pieces of debris, which can whip around the globe as fast as 17,000 miles per hour. At that velocity, even something just a half-inch around would pack a punch like a bowling ball traveling at 300 mph, according to NASA.
Lower orbits of space are full of all sorts of junk. Spent rocket boosters, laden with fuel, have exploded. Defunct satellites left in orbit have decomposed. And the junk begets more junk, as crashes create more debris, which can then cause even more collisions.
Much of the debris is attributed to two events, which added thousands of new pieces of garbage to space, severely exacerbating the problem but also raising awareness about the growing clutter.
In 2007, China blew up one of its dead weather satellites, and then two years later, an active U.S. communications satellite crashed into a defunct Russian satellite.
"We believe the space fence is very critical to not only our country but to the world," Steve Bruce, a Lockheed vice president, told The Washington Post last month. "We do rely on space for almost everything. And without us being able to safely maintain equipment in space it would affect our worldwide economy pretty significantly . . . not to mention national security."