A nearby, decades-old military operation little known by locals is coming to an end, but not without skeptics who say satellites are now left vulnerable.
The Air Force Space Surveillance System sits just a few miles between Maricopa and the outskirts of Chandler and Ahwatukee, on Arizona 347.
Known as the “Space Fence,” it beamed radar signals around the clock into space above the Southern United States for 52 years. Six receiving stations around the country caught the reflected signals, which allowed operators to track objects in the atmosphere, some as small as a basketball, that passed over the fence. The constant tracking allowed agencies to prevent collisions between satellites and space debris.
On Aug. 1, the Air Force announced it would close all nine AFSSS sites in response to sequestration cuts. The system cost $14 million a year to run.
Fifty-eight people from San Diego to Hawkinsville, Ga. will lose their job. The seven men who worked at the Gila River site, which is operated by defense contractor Five Rivers Services, are now looking for work elsewhere.
“On Aug. 31, I pushed a button, and it went quiet,” said William Henry, a shift technician at the site for 14 years. Henry said the quick shutdown process came as a surprise to the crew, some of whom had worked at Gila River for more than 30 years.
In his statement at the time of the announcement, General William L. Shelton, Commander of Air Force Space Command, said, “The AFSSS and other legacy sensors have been the backbone of our capability for years, but they were fielded in an era that had not seen the revolutionary changes in computing power and advanced electronics.”
Industry websites are buzzing about an Air Force plan to build a bigger, more multi-national space fence, with a price tag reaching billions of dollars. The Air Force budget for fiscal year 2014 is $153.58 billion, according to Pentagon documents.
It would be prime opportunity for big-name defense contractors to cash in. In fact, Lockheed Martin and Raytheon were paid $107 million each in 2011 to design prototypes for a new system.
But Henry said upgrades to the current space fence would have been enough to keep up with advancing technology – and a lot cheaper than building a new system. Other employees are also questioning the wisdom of shuttering a system they say is unique in the world.
“Obviously this is a topic that we are interested in, but our hands are tied,” said Dave Turner, vice president for corporate development for Akima, LLC. Five Rivers Services is a subsidiary of Akima. Turner said the Air Force asked his company not to comment on the issue.
A source close to the situation does blame sequestration for the shutdown, but said that Space Command’s decision came out of the blue for Five Rivers. Nevertheless, the source said the Air Force is taking on definite risk by shuttering the AFSSS and data would be much harder to retrieve to prevent collisions with the Space Fence offline.
In 2012, there were 75 incidences of satellite maneuvers to avoid collisions based on Space Command warnings.
Henry said rumors of a new space fence swirled as far back as 1999, when the Navy still operated the system. “I was always prepared that any year could be the last, and that there were no guarantees,” he said. “I’ve always kept myself ready.”
However, the constant stream of Space Command teams visiting and planning upgrades last year convinced him the AFSSS would continue operations. Henry said a team visited Gila River as late as May 2013 and indicated the system would be running until 2020.
“It’s not the kind of thing you do before you shut a place down,” he said.
To fill the gap between now and a future fence, Air Force Space Command officials say the Perimeter Acquisition Radar Characterization System (PARCS) at Cavalier Air Force Station in North Dakota and the space surveillance radar at Florida’s Eglin Air Force Base will pick up the slack, and even be able to spot smaller objects in space. But neither sites feature “uncued tracking,” meaning radars will have to point to a particular area rather than sweep the sky with one large energy field.
In the meantime, Henry says he plans on contacting Arizona politicians and keeping them informed.
“When you come across a system like this that runs cheap, that runs fine, it’s not something you really want to get rid of,” he said.