WASHINGTON — Even as spending is cut across the military, the final stage of a battle over billions of defense dollars is taking place at Hanscom Air Force Base in Bedford, where Waltham-based Raytheon and Maryland’s Lockheed Martin are locked in a competition to build a first-of-its-kind “Space Fence” to track orbital junk.
Air Force officials, with the help of engineers at nearby MIT Lincoln Labs and the government-funded, Bedford-based Mitre Corporation, expect to pick one of the companies’ designs this summer for a powerful radar system to track more of the estimated half a million pieces of man-made debris that imperil weather forecasting, navigation, and communication satellites. Even the International Space Station recently had a pair of close calls with debris, requiring astronauts to scramble to escape pods.
The Space Fence project is expected to cost nearly $3 billion, not including the expense of operating it. The project would use a massive radar beam, generated from a remote Pacific island and possibly another in Western Australia, that reaches into space to track debris.
“It is going to be pretty significant and receive significant financial support for decades in the future. It is a massive program,” said C. Zachary Hofer, a defense electronics analyst at Forecast International, a Newtown, Conn., aerospace consulting firm. “This has been a long time in the making. It is replacing a system that began service in 1961.”
The program was conceived in 2005 at Hanscom, where the Air Force has overseen major radar programs for decades. The region’s surrounding scientific brainpower has also made Hanscom the primary developer of the Space Fence.
The Space Fence program office at Hanscom is in the process of completing a design review to determine which company’s proposal to use, according to senior officials.
But although most experts agree on the need for a new tracking system, the project has recently come under scrutiny from government watchdogs concerned that the Air Force may be rushing a highly complex system, which is supposed to be ready by 2017.
The Government Accountability Office last year warned that the Space Fence, the single-largest investment in what the military calls “space situational awareness,” was among several space surveillance projects in the Pentagon that face significant technological hurdles.
“The size of the radar is expected to provide significant power for the transmission and reception of data,” the GAO report found, “but may also pose increased risk” to efforts to collate all the information it gleans effectively.
At the same time, the Space Fence will be dependent on a yet-to-be-completed computer system designed to collect and analyze all its data.
That system, called the Joint Space Operations Center Mission System, to be located in California, “needs to be available when the Space Fence is fielded because the amount of data Space Fence will generate exceeds existing command-and-control system performance limits,” GAO found.
Space debris is seen as a growing problem as satellites have been decommissioned, the remnants of space missions including rocket stages have been discarded in orbit, and recent collisions have created thousands of pieces of debris. Tracking the objects’ orbits to avoid collisions is seen as an urgent need.
A turning point came in February 2009 when two communications satellites traveling at more than 26,000 miles per hour collided high over Siberia’s Taymyr Peninsula, shattering into thousands of pieces. The destruction of the United States’ Iridium-33 and Russia’s long-defunct Kosmos 2251 communications satellites was the first so-called “hypervelocity” crash.
It was a clear sign that Earth’s orbit has become so cluttered with debris from old rockets and satellites that human space exploration and the ability to launch satellites is in growing danger.
“We rely extensively on commercial satellites for communications, Direct TV,” Dana W. Whalley, the program manager for Space Fence project at Hanscom said in an interview. “If you have even a piece as small as a golf ball traveling through space at those velocities, it can do significant damage. The same goes for the military.”
Whalley said that current radar systems are tracking about 20,000 objects in space, each at least the size of a basketball, but there are far more pieces of junk that are significantly smaller.
“There are estimates of as many as a half a million objects that are out there that we are unable to track at this point,” he said.
The Space Fence is intended to track at least half of them but officials acknowledge many are too small to identify at such great distance from the ground.
Whalley said Lincoln Labs and Mitre, both based near Hanscom, will play a key role in the program regardless of which defense company gets the contract.
“We know we have to scale the radar up to a gigantic level and we are going to rely heavily on them as the contractor produces the critical design and goes into actual production of the radar as well as the performance testing of that radar,” Whalley said.
Lockheed Martin and Raytheon declined requests to discuss their proposals, highlighting the sensitive nature of the pending decision and concern that they might negatively affect the process. Raytheon also declined to comment on how the contract might affect its workforce in Massachusetts or around the country.
“We are in source selection, so at this time we’d like to decline participating in your story,” Raytheon spokesman Michael Nachshen said.
Top Pentagon officials, meanwhile, are anxious to see the project move ahead.
“We are tracking about 130 percent more space objects in the past 10 years,” said Mark T. Maybury, the Air Force’s chief scientist in Washington. “As satellites get smaller and smaller, you’re going to have more put in space. Some of it will naturally decay but this is a serious concern because obviously a small item going tens of thousands of miles an hour whipping around could cause a very bad day.”