Radar Prototype Begins Tracking Down Space Junk

Simulation of how Space Fence will track orbital space debris. Image courtesy Lockheed Martin


Several times a year, the International Space Station needs to perform Debris Avoidance Maneuvers to dodge the ever-growing amount of space junk hurtling around in Earth orbit. Additionally, our increased dependence on satellites for communications and navigation is threatened by the risk of potential collisions with space debris. The existing system for finding and tracking objects, the Air Force Space Surveillance System, or VHF Fence, has been in service since the early 1960s, and is sorely out of date. But a prototype system called Space Fence has now been tested in a series of demonstrations, and successfully tracked more and smaller pieces of debris than the current system.

“The current system has the ability to track about 20,000 objects,” Lockheed Martin spokesperson Chip Eschenfelder told Universe Today, “but there millions of objects out there, many of which are not being tracked. Space Fence will find and catalog smaller objects than what are not being tracked now.”

Space Fence will use powerful new ground-based S-band radars to enhance the way the U.S. detects, tracks, measures and catalogs orbiting objects and space debris with improved accuracy, better timeliness and increased surveillance coverage, Lockheed Martin said. In recent tests, the Space Fence prototype proved it could detect more and smaller objects than the current system.

Space debris includes non-operational satellites, and leftover rocket parts from launches. Basically, every time there is a launch, more debris is created. Collisions between the current debris create even more pieces that are smaller and harder to detect. With the debris traveling at lightning-fast orbital speeds, even pieces as small as a paint chip could be deadly to an astronaut on EVA at the space station, or could take out a telecommunications or navigation satellite.

A look at the Space Fence control center. Credit: Lockheed Martin

The developers of Space Fence say the new system will revolutionize what’s called ‘space situational awareness,’ which characterizes the space environment and how it will affect activities in space.

“Space Fence will detect, track and catalog over 200,000 orbiting objects and help transform space situational awareness from being reactive to predictive,” said Steve Bruce, vice president of the Space Fence program. “The Air Force will have more time to anticipate events potentially impacting space assets and missions.

The current system has tracking locations in the US only and has a huge ‘blind spot’ by not supplying information about debris in the southern hemisphere. But Space Fence will provide global coverage from three ground-based radar located at strategic sites around the world.

On February 29, 2012, the Air Force granted its final approval of Lockheed Martin’s preliminary design, and they expect the new system’s initial operational capability to be sometime in 2017.

“The successful detection and tracking of resident space objects are important steps in demonstrating technology maturity, cost certainty and low program risk,” said Bruce in a statement. “Our final system design incorporates a scalable, solid-state S-band radar, with a higher wavelength frequency capable of detecting much smaller objects than the Air Force’s current system.”

For more information see the Space Fence website, and NASA’s Orbital Debris Program Office.

First Orion Assembled at Denver, Another Orion Displayed at Kennedy Space Center

Assembly of NASA’s first Orion Crew Module is complete. Shown here is the first Orion/Multi-Purpose Crew Vehicle (MPCV) being hoisted into position in the Reverberant Acoustic Lab at Lockheed Martin’s Waterton Facility near Denver, Colorado where it will undergo ground tests simulating the harsh environment of deep space. Credit: Lockheed Martin


Assembly of NASA’s first Orion Crew vehicle that could actually launch to space has been accomplished by prime contractor Lockheed Martin Corporation at the firm’s Waterton space systems facility located near Denver, Colorado, where the spacecraft is slated to begin a severe testing process that will help confirm crew safety.

Orion is NASA’s next generation spacecraft designed to send human crews to low Earth Orbit and beyond to multiple deep space destinations throughout our solar system including the Moon, Mars and Asteroids. Orion was recently recast as the MPCV or Multi Purpose Crew Vehicle in the NASA Authorization Act of 2010.

“The first Orion crew module built to spaceflight specifications is complete,” said Linda Singleton, a spokesperson for Lockheed Martin in an interview.

“Orion will soon be integrated with the launch abort system test article prior to undergoing acoustic, vibration and modal testing in Denver,” Singleton told me. “The testing process will last several months.”

Watch this cool and detailed animation of the testing process to be conducted at the Reverberant Acoustic Lab at Lockheed Martin’s Waterton Facility.

The video also shows how the Orion will be integrated and tested with the Launch Abort System (LAS) that would save the lives of the astronauts on board in the event of a spaceflight emergency.

With the Grand Finale of NASA’s Space Shuttle Program now just days away after the launch of shuttle Atlantis on the STS-135 mission, the US faces a gap with no capability to send humans to space and the International Space Station for a time period extending at least several years.

A replacement vehicle for the retiring shuttle – whether its the Orion or from a commercial provider like SpaceX – can’t come soon enough in order to maintain the viability of the International Space Station.

This Orion vehicle also known as the Ground Test Article, or GTA, will now be subjected to several months of rigorous flight like testing that simulates the harsh environments that astronauts would face during voyages to deep space.

NASA's Orion Multi Purpose Crew Vehicle
The Orion MPVC Multi Purpose Crew Vehicle ground test article (GTA) is shown at the Lockheed Martin Vertical Test Facility in Colorado. The GTA’s heat shield and thermal protection backshell was completed in preparation for environmental testing. Credit: NASA/Lockheed Martin

Thereafter, the Orion crew module will be transported in early 2012 to NASA’s Langley Research Center in Virginia where it will undergo water landing drop tests next year at the new Hydro Impact Basin facility.

“The NASA and Lockheed Martin teams hope to achieve Orion/MPCV initial crewed operations by 2016”, said Singleton. “We are aiming for an initial unmanned orbital test flight in 2013.”

A Delta IV Heavy booster rocket is the most likely candidate for the 2013 Orion orbital flight, but a final decision has not yet been announced by NASA.

Meanwhile, another Orion crew module that was flown during the Pad Abort 1 test (PA-1) in 2010 is now on public display at the Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex in Florida. The vehicle just arrived after a cross country trek from NASA’s Dryden Flight Research Center in California and making several public outreach stops along the way to Florida.

The Orion Pad Abort 1 Test crew module is moved to viewing location at the Rocket Garden at The Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex. Credit: Lockheed Martin

The Orion PA-1 test article is on display until July 4 in the historic Rocket Garden at Kennedy in the shadow of a mighty Saturn 1B and alongside Mercury, Gemini and Apollo Era capsules and rockets. The mockup of the LAS is also still on display at the Kennedy Visitor Complex.

NASA's Exploration Systems Mission Directorate (ESMD) visits the Orion MPCV in Colorado. Doug Cooke, Associate Administrator for ESMD, and Dr. Laurie Leshin, Deputy Associate Administrator for ESMD, are pictured with Mark Kirasich, Deputy Program Manager for Orion MPCV. Credit: NASA
Orion Cutaway diagram

Lockheed Accelerates Orion to Achieve 2013 launch and potential 2016 Manned Lunar Flyby

American astronauts aboard an Orion spacecraft could be launched on a Lunar fly by mission in 2016 atop NASA’s Heavy Lift Launch Vehicle. Credit: Credit: Lockheed Martin

KENNEDY SPACE CENTER – Despite utilizing just half the work force originally planned and cutting back further on the original test program, Lockheed Martin is now accelerating the Orion Multi-Purpose Crew Vehicle (MPCV) launch schedule and aiming to achieve an Earth orbital flight by 2013 and a human crewed flight as early as 2016. The first Orion crew cabin has been built and construction of the second spacecraft has begun.

What’s more is that a bold “manned mission beyond low Earth orbit and even a lunar fly by is possible in 2016 if NASA’s new heavy lift rocket is developed in time,” says John Karas, vice president of Lockheed Martin’s Human Space Flight programs, in an exclusive interview with Universe Today. A bipartisan majority in Congress recently approved funding for the Heavy lift booster and mandated that the first flight occur in 2016.

“In order to go to the moon, we need NASA’s new heavy lifter,” Karas explained. Orion was designed with the capability to fly human crews to low Earth orbit (LEO) and the International Space Station, as well as beyond to deep space, the Moon, Asteroids, Lagrange Points and Mars.

Orion is NASA’s next generation crew vehicle and is intended to someday replace the Space Shuttle program, which will be fully retired just three months from now.

The second to last shuttle flight – STS 134 – is slated for launch this week on April 29 and President Obama and the entire First Family will attend.

Lockheed Martin is the prime contractor for Orion under a multi-year contract awarded by NASA in 2006.

First Orion Crew module
Orion crew module during recent installation of back shell panel at Lockheed Martin’s Vertical Test Facility in Denver, Colorado. Credit: NASA

Karas told me that the streamlined test program would involve flying one Orion mission per year – of increasing complexity – from 2013 to 2016. “Lockheed Martin is working with NASA to determine what are the right launch vehicles and the right missions.”

American astronauts could return to the moon in 5 years after a more than 40 year long hiatus.

Orion crew module at Lockheed’s Denver Space Faciilty. First Orion Crew module being outfitted with doors, windows and thermal protection system and more at Lockheed facilities in Denver. Credit: NASA

“Right now we are building a brand new crew cabin for the first Orion mission; OFT-1. But everything depends on the budget.”

“For the inaugural Orion test flight in 2013 NASA is considering a Delta IV Heavy booster rocket,” Karas said. “The Atlas V is not powerful enough to send the whole 50,000 pound spacecraft into orbit. With an Atlas we could only launch an Orion crew module. You would have to have delete the Service Module (SM) and /or other subsystems.”

“Orion would be lofted some 7,000 miles out, and then sent back for Earth reentry to simulate something close to lunar velocity, around 80% or so. So we would definitely be testing the deep space environment. Therefore the test flight would be a lot more involved than just a simple Earth orbital reentry.

“For the first Orion mission, we will put as much capability on it as possible depending on the budget,” Karas amplified. “But it’s unlikely to have solar arrays without a few hundred million more bucks. The capability is money limited.”

“The 2014 flight could be a high altitude abort test or perhaps something else.”

“Then a full up unmanned test flight would follow in 2015,” Karas explained.

“If we have a heavy lifter, the 2016 flight with the first human crew could be a deep space mission or a lunar fly by lasting more than a week.”

Orion crew module boosted by upper stage to the Moon and deep space. Credit: Lockheed Martin

Lockheed has already constructed the initial Orion crew vehicle – known as the first article or Ground Test Article (GTA). The Orion GTA first article was built at NASA’s Michoud Assembly Facility (MAF) in New Orleans, LA where I inspected it after the structural framework was welded into one piece.

Following the installation of mass and volume simulators and a successful series of pressure tests, the first article was then shipped in February this year to the company’s new state-of-the-art Space Operation Simulation Center (SOSC) located in Denver, Colorado.

“At Denver, we are going to finish the assembly of the first article by July of this year so it looks like a spacecraft – adding the doors, windows, thermal tiles and more,” Karas said. “Then it undergoes rigorous acoustics tests until September – known as Shake and Bake – to simulate all aspects of the harsh environment of deep space.”

The next step after that was to send it to NASA Langley for intensive water drop landing tests. But that plan may well change Karas told me.

“The first article – or GTA – is flight worthy. So we don’t want to break the spacecraft during the water landing tests. In the newly revised plan it may be used on the 2nd Orion flight in 2014 instead of reserving it for ground tests only. It would fly with a service module, but not solar panels. The first article could even be the first flight vehicle if the program funding is insufficient.”

Orion prototype crew cabin - GTA
Orion cabin view with astronaut crew hatch and window openings at NASA Michoud Assembly Facility, New Orleans, LA is now undergoing testing and integration at Lockheed’s new state-of-the-art Space Operation Simulation Center (SOSC) in Denver, Colorado. Credit: Ken Kremer

“We have only half the budget for Orion that was planned earlier by NASA,” Karas stated.

“1500 less people are working on Orion since 1 year ago from the start to the end of 2010 – and that number includes all the subcontractors. We had to lay off a lot of people, including some folks we intended to hire.”

“MAF is now focused on building the composite structures of the first Service Module with about 200 people. That’s about half of what should have been about 400 folks. The earlier work at Michoud (MAF) focused on the metallic structures of the cabin for the first article,” said Karas.

To a large degree, launching astronauts to deep space is more a matter of sheer political will power then solving technical issues. And it all comes down to the bucks.

If NASA’s Heavy lifter is not available an alternative scenario with other expendable rockets would have to be developed to achieve the escape velocity required to send a crew of astronauts to the Moon.

Lockheed Martin has independently proposed a stepping stone approach that would send astronauts in Orion spacecraft to challenging deep space targets such as the Moon, and elsewhere such as Asteroids, Lagrange points and Mars that have never been done before and which I’ll feature in upcoming articles.

“Exploration missions that are affordable and sustainable will inevitably lead to technological innovation, to scientific discovery, and to public inspiration and spark an interest in STEM careers that can help the United States counter the overwhelming numerical disadvantage in college graduates it faces in these disciplines in developing third-world nations,’ says Karas.

Read my recent Orion and Shuttle articles:

NASAs First Orion Capsule and New Space Operations Center Unveiled

NASAs First Orion Capsule Ships for Crucial Deep Space Tests

President Obama to Attend Endeavour’s Last Launch on April 29

Shuttle Endeavour Photo Special: On Top of Pad 39A for Final Flight

NASA Selects Museums in Florida, California, New York and the Smithsonian for retiring Space Shuttles

‘In Flight’ Shuttle Orbiter retirement display planned by Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex

Orion manned capsule launch atop Heavy Lift Booster
Orion could launch on a lunar flyby mission in 2016 atop NASA’s new Heavy lift booster from the Kennedy Space Center. Credit: Lockheed Martin.

NASAs First Orion Capsule and New Space Operations Center Unveiled

Lockheed Martin’s Space Operations Simulation Center in Littleton, Colorado, simulates on-orbit docking maneuvers with full-scale Orion and International Space Station mockups. The spacious center includes an 18,000 square-foot high bay area used to validate Orion’s new relative navigation system (STORRM), which will be tested on orbit during the STS-134 mission set to blast off on April19, 2011. Credit: Lockheed Martin


The inaugural version of NASA’s new Orion human space exploration capsule was unveiled by Lockheed Martin at the company’s new state-of-the-art Space Operation Simulation Center (SOSC) located in Denver, Colorado. Orion is designed to fly human crews to low Earth orbit (LEO) and the International Space Station, the Moon, Asteroids, Lagrange Points and beyond to deep space and Mars.

Lockheed Martin is aiming for a first unmanned orbital test flight of Orion as soon as 2013, said John Karas, vice president and general manager for Lockheed Martin’s Human Space Flight programs in an interview with Universe Today . The first operational flight with humans on board is now set for 2016 as stipulated in the NASA Authorization Act of 2010.

Orion manned capsule could launch in 2016 atop proposed NASA heavy lift booster from the Kennedy Space Center

This Orion prototype capsule was assembled at NASA’s Michoud Assembly Facility (MAF) in New Orleans, LA and shipped by truck to Denver. At Denver, the capsule will be put through a rigorous testing program to simulate all aspects of a space mission from launch to landing and examine whether the vehicle can withstand the harsh and unforgiving environment of deep space.

Orion was originally designed to be launched by the Ares 1 booster rocket, as part of NASA’s Project Constellation Return to the Moon program, now cancelled by President Obama. The initial Orion test flight will likely be atop a Delta IV Heavy rocket, Karas told me. The first manned flight is planned for the new heavy lift rocket ordered by the US Congress to replace the Project Constellation architecture.

The goal is to produce a new, US-built manned capsule capable of launching American astronauts into space following the looming forced retirement of NASA’s Space Shuttle orbiters later this year. Thus there will be a gap of at least three years until US astronauts again can launch from US soil.

“Our nation’s next bold step in exploration could begin by 2016,” said Karas in a statement. “Orion was designed from inception to fly multiple, deep-space missions. The spacecraft is an incredibly robust, technically advanced vehicle capable of safely transporting humans to asteroids, Lagrange Points and other deep space destinations that will put us on an affordable and sustainable path to Mars.”

Jim Bray, Director, Orion Crew & Service Module, unveils the first Orion crew module to guests and media at the Lockheed Martin Space Systems Company Waterton Facility in Denver, CO. The vehicle is temporarily positioned in the composite heat shield before installation begins. Following installation of the heat shield and thermal backshell panels, the spacecraft will undergo rigorous testing to validate Orion’s ability to endure the harsh environments of deep space. Credit: Lockheed Martin

Lockheed Martin is the prime contractor for Orion under a multiyear contract awarded by NASA worth some $3.9 Billion US Dollars.

The SOSC was built at a cost of several million dollars. The 41,000 square foot facility will be used to test and validate vehicles, equipment and software for future human spaceflight programs to ensure safe, affordable and sustainable space exploration.

Mission scenarios include docking to the International Space Station, exploring the Moon, visiting an Asteroid and even journeying to Mars. Lockheed has independently proposed the exploration of several challenging deep space targets by astronauts with Orion crew vehicles which I’ll report on in upcoming features.

Orion capsule and Abort rocket mockups on display at Kennedy Space Center.
Full scale mockups of the Orion capsule and emergency abort rocket are on public display at the Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex in Florida. Orion crew capsule mockup (at left) and Launch Abort System (LAS) at right. The emergency rocket will be bolted atop an Orion spaceship for the initial orbital test flight currently slated for 2013 launch. The LAS mockup was used in launch pad exercises at the New Mexico launch site of the LAS rocket blast-off in May 2010. Credit: Ken Kremer

The SOSC facility provides the capability for NASA and Lockheed Martin engineers to conduct full-scale motion simulations of many types of manned and robotic space missions. Demonstrations are run using laser and optically guided robotic navigation systems.
Inside the SOSC, engineers can test the performance of a vehicles ranging, rendezvous, docking, proximity operations, imaging, descent and landing systems for Earth orbiting mission as well as those to other bodies in our solar system.

“The Orion spacecraft is a state-of-the-art deep space vehicle that incorporates the technological advances in human life support systems that have accrued over the last 35 years since the Space Shuttle was designed.” says Karas. “In addition, the Orion program has recently been streamlined for additional affordability, setting new standards for reduced NASA oversight. Orion is compatible with all the potential HLLVs that are under consideration by NASA, including the use of a Delta IV heavy for early test flights.”

Orion approaches the ISS

At this moment, the SOSC is being used to support a test of Orion hardware that will be flying on the upcoming STS-134 mission of Space Shuttle Endeavour. Orion’s Relative Navigation System – dubbed STORRM (Sensor Test for Orion RelNav Risk Mitigation) – will be put through its paces in several docking and navigation tests by the shuttle astronauts as they approach and depart the ISS during the STS-134 flight slated to launch on April19, 2011.

The Orion flight schedule starting in 2013 is however fully dependent on the level of funding which NASA receives from the Federal Government.

This past year the, Orion work was significantly slowed by large budget cuts and the future outlook is murky. Project Orion is receiving about half the funding originally planned by NASA.

And more deep cuts are in store for NASA’s budget – including both manned and unmanned projects – as both political parties wrangle about priorities as they try to pass a federal budget for this fiscal year. Until then, NASA and the entire US government are currently operating under a series of continuing resolutions passed by Congress – and the future is anything but certain.

Orion prototype crew cabin with crew hatch and windows
built at NASA Michoud Assembly Facility, New Orleans, LA. Credit: Ken Kremer
Lockheed Martin team of aerospace engineers and technicians poses with first Orion crew cabin after welding into one piece at NASA Michoud Assembly Facility, New Orleans, LA. Credit: Ken Kremer
Orion and ISS simulated docking