Lockheed Martin (LMT) edged out Raytheon (RTN) for a $915 million Pentagon contract to build the Space Fence. The contract, announced by the Defense Department on June 2, is one of the largest space-related military contracts in recent years, according to SpaceNews.
Not actually a "fence," the ground-based radar system is supposed to track debris that clutters in space around the Earth and that threatens satellites and spacecraft. The equipment will be located in Marshall Islands in the Pacific Ocean.
Although tight budgets have slowed the program, it has long been a priority for the military.
"Space debris ... is certainly a problem that we're very concerned about," said General William L. Shelton, commander of Air Force Space Command, in a speech at the 2013 AFA Pacific Air & Space Symposium. "And let's face it, space is just an unforgiving environment to operate in," he added.
Shelton said there are in orbit an estimated 500,000 objects at least one centimeter in size. Existing systems can track only about 23,000 of them.
Lockheed's system will use ground-based S-band radar, a type used in weather and ship radar as well as space communications. The high-frequency technology will help detect objects much smaller than possible with current systems, which were put into service in the early 1960s.
Although many of the pieces are tiny, they can still cause damage. Even in a low Earth orbit, objects must move at upwards of 17,000 miles per hour, so a tiny item can deliver a devastating blow to a satellite, spacecraft, or instrumentation.
According to the General Accounting Office, collision by debris could cost billions. The Air Force had originally intended to award a contract for development of the Space Fence in July 2012 but pushed the date out.
The new Space Fence is scheduled to go into operation in 2017.