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BLOG: Are Lockheed’s UKIRT Plans SPOT-On?

May 28, 2014, 12:37 PM HST
* Updated May 28, 12:42 PM
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Could a telescope on Mauna Kea that recently changed ownership help out with a $2 billion program to track “space junk”?

Reuters reported last week that the US Air Force is preparing to choose either Lockheed Martin Corp. or Raytheon Co. to build a ground-based radar system to track satellites and other objects in space.

The “Space Fence” is designed to keep track of about 40% of the estimated 500,000 pieces of man-made debris orbiting Earth.

The Washington Post said that includes big items such as pieces of dead satellites and rocket boosters and many, many smaller items, even a glove dropped by an astronaut in 1965 and a spatula that escaped from a space shuttle in 2006.

The Space Fence would replace the now-defunct Air Force Space Surveillance System, or VHF Fence, which until last year tracked about 23,000 space items.

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According to Reuters, US military officials say the new program is critical for a variety of reasons including the huge amount of debris out there amid satellites from a growing number of countries – and the ongoing development of anti-satellite weapons.

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The space trash, which can whiz along at up to 17,000 mph, poses an ever-increasing threat to the approximately 1,100 working satellites and the international space station.

At that speed, Post writer Christian Davenport says, a piece a half-inch across would have the force of a bowling ball traveling at 300 mph.

The new program is expected to track as many as 200,000 items, including those down to the size of a golf ball, while increasing the capability of forecasting possible collisions.

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According to the Post, in 2012 the US issued more than 10,000 warnings of close calls which led to 75 “avoidance maneuvers” in which satellites were moved out of harm’s way.

Back on the Big Island, Lockheed Martin recently acquired a role in the operation of the United Kingdom Infrared Telescope, also known as UKIRT, atop Mauna Kea.

The defense contracting giant is partnering with the University of Hawaii, UKIRT’s new owner, and the University of Arizona to use the telescope to study satellites, space debris and asteroids that could present a problem to Earth.

According to its website, Lockheed Martin is optimistic it will be awarded the contract for the new Space Fence, which is expected to involve construction of a radar system on Kwajalein Atoll in the Marshall Islands.

But Lockheed is also hedging its bets. According to an article in Defense News, the company is developing a program known as SPOT, for Space Object Tracking, that it believes could be the cornerstone of a new ground-based “space situational awareness capability.”

SPOT uses three 1-meter telescopes set on rails in Santa Cruz, Calif. Because the telescopes can be moved, they can obtain multiple images of the sky which is then filtered through Lockheed’s proprietary software to track items down to 20 inches in size.

The Defense News article also mentions Lockheed’s role at UKIRT, saying that although it “won’t have military application,” the company plans to use the Big Island observatory to enhance its space situational awareness.

University of Hawaii officials were not immediately available for comment on details for future plans for UKIRT, and whether they could dovetail with SPOT.

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