The legally mandated government sequestration has cost America a lot of things — some more important than others —but the latest victim is one we use every day, even if we don't see it. Air Force General William Shelton announced via memo last week that he is shutting down the Air Force Space Surveillance System, a radar-based tracking system that we prefer to call by its nickname, the Space Fence.
What the heck is a space fence? It's actually a surveillance network that tracks small objects floating through Earth's orbit. Given all of the junk that the U.S. and other nations have thrown up there — satellites, probes, rockets, and assorted debris from our space programs — that's a not inconsiderable amount of things to keep track of. Over 100,000 objects a day, according to the technicians who work on it, but that's still less than five percent of the man-made objects in orbit. But because of budget cuts, all nine of land-based tracking stations will be mothballed and placed into "cold storage," effectively shutting down the system by the end of the year.
Keeping track of space garbage may not seem like a vitally important task, but there is a lot of stuff up there and we need to know where it is. In 2009, two communications satellites (one Russian and one American) collided over Siberia, destroying both platforms, costing the nations millions of dollars, and scattering even more debris into space — which creates even more opportunities for chaos. And it could have been avoided with a better tracking system. Without proper management, there could be more and bigger collisions, making space flight exceedingly dangerous for astronauts and possibly sending some of that junk back down on our heads.
The loss of the decades-old Space Fence wouldn't be such a big deal, if the new, more advanced system that's been in development for the last several years were ready to go online. Unfortunately, the contract bidding process to build the next-generation Space Fence has been held up by ... you guessed it ... the sequestration. A service-wide Pentagon review looking for ways to trim the budget is still examining the feasibility of all new acquisition projects, and as long as this government is tied up by the extreme cutting, most of them are unlikely to go forward.
This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.