The Sequester Is Limiting Our Protection From Extraterrestrial Threats

National Journal

Forget cutbacks on bathroom cleanings at national parks or the furlough of thousands of government workers. Perhaps the greatest vulnerability the sequester has opened up is the threat of extraterrestrial destruction.

That's right. This week, the Air Force announced that it is prepared to shut down its Space Surveillance System come October as it seeks to comply with sequester cuts in its 2014 budget. According to the press release, the Air Force will save $14 million a year from cutting a program that uses radar to detect meteors entering the atmosphere, such as the one that injured 1,000 in Russia in February, or debris that can damage our satellite systems. The news site says the system has the capability "to locate threats as small as a basketball." So we can assume it could also detect an incoming alien spacecraft.

At this point in the end-of-the-world movie, the Jeff Goldblum character would rush to the general's or president's office, shouting emotionally that we can't ignore the chance that destruction will rain down from outer space. (In typical fashion, the general or president would flippantly point to the nation's nuclear arsenal to solve any space-related problem.) After all, reports that last year the Air Force called the program "a critical defense system [that] shall be manned on a 24-hour, 7-days-a-week, 365-days-a-year basis."

But the Air Force backs down from that assessment in Tuesday's release, saying the space monitor is an aging system with an "inherent inaccuracy," and that it is just one of many space-monitoring programs. (According to Space News, it accounts for 40 percent of the Air Force's space monitoring.)

The AFSSS, which has been operational since 1961, is just one part of AFSPC's global Space Surveillance Network. The system is designed to transmit a "fence" of radar energy vertically into space to detect all objects intersecting that fence. The operational advantage of the AFSSS is its ability to detect objects in an un-cued fashion, rather than tracking objects based on previous information. The disadvantage is the inherent inaccuracy of the data, based on its dated design.

To cope with the shutdown, the Air Force is looking to ramp up other components of its space-monitoring apparatus. And new space-monitoring technology is on the horizon. A newfangled "Space Fence" is under development by Raytheon and Lockheed Martin (and supposed to be in use by 2017), but the Air Force has yet to award the contract. Once in place, that system will be able to monitor 200,000 objects in space, according to Raytheon press materials. The current system can monitor about 20,000.