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Posts Tagged ‘Raytheon

Space junk solution in the works

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A next-generation space surveillance system will rely on high-resolution radar and high-performance computing.

The space-junk alerts that have been sounded on the International Space Station over the past couple of weeks highlight the need for the “Space Fence,” a next-generation system for tracking orbital debris that’s due to begin operation in 2015.

One of the alerts, on June 28, came so late that the station didn’t have time to get out of the way. The six astronauts living aboard the orbital outpost had to take shelter in Russian Soyuz lifeboats while debris of unknown origin zoomed past at a distance of just 850 feet (260 meters).

The other alert came Sunday, just as the space shuttle Atlantis was beginning its last visit to the space station. Initially, mission managers worried that the station-shuttle complex would have to be moved out of the way of some Soviet-era satellite debris, but today they said the junk would pass by harmlessly at aNA distance of 11 miles (18 kilometers).

The first case in particular demonstrates why debris-trackers need to know more about what’s out there, said Doug Burgess, manager for space situational awareness programs at Raytheon.

“They only had 15 hours to make a decision about whether to maneuver or not, and clearly human life was at stake,” Burgess told me today. “If the capability that Space Fence brings to bear were available, they would have had a much longer lead time.”

Today, orbital-debris trackers at NASA and the U.S. Strategic Command can keep track of only the tip of the iceberg: About 20,000 pieces of space junk have been cataloged, but experts estimate that somewhere between 100,000 and 500,000 objects larger than a centimeter (half an inch) are in Earth orbit. At orbital speeds of up to 17,500 mph, even an inch-wide piece of debris could destroy a satellite or damage the space station if it struck in the wrong place.

 

Lockheed Martin video explains the concept behind the Space Fence.

“This issue has always been on the minds of people who are trying to use space for all the things that it’s used for today. … We really are heavily reliant on space,” John Morse, director of Lockheed Martin’s Space Fence Program, told Discovery News.

More satellites in orbit tend to breed more space junk, as illustrated by the 2009 collision of a defunct Russian weather satellite and an Iridium telecom satellite, which left thousands of additional pieces of debris in orbit. “The situation is only going to get worse in time,” Burgess said.

That’s where the $3.5 billion Space Fence comes in. The existing radar tracking system, known as the Air Force Space Surveillance System, uses VHF and UHF frequency bands to track orbital debris, but those wavelengths are too wide to catch the small stuff. The new system will be far more sensitive because it’ll operate in finer-resolution S-band wavelengths.

“It’s an order-of-magnitude improvement,” Burgess said.

But that’s just the start: The next-generation Space Fence will also rely on high-performance computing to identify and keep track of orbital paths for what’s likely to be hundreds of thousands of bits of orbiting junk. That should provide better “predict-ahead ability,” Burgess said. Right now, NASA’s rules call for the space station’s crew to take evasive action — or prepare to abandon ship — if a piece of debris is projected to fly within an imaginary “pizza box” that’s about 15 miles (25 kilometers) on each side and a half-mile (0.75 kilometers) above and below the station. The Space Fence would reduce the margin of error.

“Things like the pizza box get smaller, your uncertainty gets smaller, your ability to predict orbital tracks in advance becomes greater,” Burgess said.

 

Raytheon video focuses on the company’s experience with radar technology.

Raytheon and Lockheed Martin are in competition for the Space Fence contract, and in February, the U.S. Air Force provided each company with a $107 milllion, 18-month design contract. The designs are to get a preliminary review next February, with the contract awarded a year from now. The first of three planned globe-girdling radar installations is to be in operation in 2015, and the Space Fence should be fully operational in 2020. The favored sites for the installations are in Australia, the Marshall Islands and Ascension Island.

$3.5 billion may sound like a lot to pay for an invisible fence. But when you consider that the space station alone is a $100 billion-plus investment that needs to last until at least 2020 … well, it just seems to me that they can’t build that fence fast enough.

 

Via MSNBC

Mini-weapons sought by Pentagon for new era of warfare

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A sleek, delta-winged robotic jet took to the skies for the first time above the Mojave Desert at Edwards Air Force Base.

Boeing Co.’s experimental drone, dubbed Phantom Ray, flew to 7,500 feet and reached speeds of 205 mph in its first flight. The 17-minute flight took place April 27, but Boeing officials did not confirm details until Tuesday.

 

The Phantom Ray, which resembles a giant boomerang, is being developed by the Chicago company for a variety of missions. Its stealthy design could enable it to slip behind enemy lines to knock out radar installations, clearing the way for fighters and bombers.

Under mounting pressure to keep its massive budget in check, the Pentagon is looking to cheaper, smaller weapons to wage war in the 21st century.

A new generation of weaponry is being readied in clandestine laboratories across the nation that puts a priority on pintsized technology that would be more precise in warfare and less likely to cause civilian casualties. Increasingly, the Pentagon is being forced to discard expensive, hulking, Cold War-era armaments that exact a heavy toll on property and human lives.

At L-3 Interstate Electronics Corp. in Anaheim, technicians work in secure rooms developing a GPS guidance system for a 13-pound “smart bomb” that would be attached to small, low-flying drone.

Engineers in Simi Valley at AeroVironment Inc. are developing a mini-cruise missile designed to fit into a soldier’s rucksack, be fired from a mortar and scour the battlefield for enemy targets.

And in suburban Portland, Ore. Voxtel Inc. is concocting an invisible mist to be sprayed on enemy fighters and make them shine brightly in night-vision goggles.

These miniature weapons have one thing in common: They will be delivered with the help of small robotic planes. Drones have grown in importance as the Pentagon has seen them play a vital role in Iraq, Afghanistan and reportedly in the raid on Osama bin Laden’s hideout in Abbottabad, Pakistan.

Now, engineers in Southern California and elsewhere are refining drone technology to deliver a powerful wallop with increasingly smaller robotic planes — many of which resemble model aircraft buzzing around local parks.

This work is aimed primarily at one buyer —the Pentagon, which is seeking a total of $671 billion for fiscal 2012. Of that, drones represent $4.8 billion, a small but growing segment of the defense budget — and that doesn’t include spending on robotic weapons technology in the classified portion of the budget.

This comes at a time when expensive weapons programs, like Marine Corps amphibious assault vehicles and Navy cruisers, are being eyed for trims.

Although some mini-weapons may resemble toys, they represent a new wave of sophisticated technology in modern warfare, which has forced the military and weapons-makers to think small. And they are just a few under development that have been disclosed.

“There are a lot of weapons in the military’s arsenal,” said Lt. Col. Brad Beach, an official who coordinates the Marines’ drone technology. “But what we don’t have is something small.”

The military is flush with multi-ton bunker-busting bombs designed to reduce fortified buildings into smoldering rubble.

But Marines on the front lines in Afghanistan say there is an urgent need for a weapon that is small and powerful enough to protect them from insurgents planting roadside bombs.

Marines already have small spy drones with high-powered cameras, but what they need is a way to destroy the enemies that their drones discover.

Looking to fill the need, the 13-pound “smart bomb” has been under development for three years. The 2-foot-long bomb is steered by a GPS-guided system made in Anaheim. The bomb is called Small Tactical Munition, or STM, and is under development by Raytheon Co.

Miniature

“Soldiers are watching bad guys plant” roadside bombs and “can’t do anything about it,” said Cody Tretschok, who leads work on the program at Raytheon. “They have to call in an air strike, which can take 30 to 60 minutes. The time lapse is too great.”

The idea is that the small bomb could be slung under the spy plane’s wing, dropped to a specific point using GPS coordinates or a laser-guidance system, and blast apart “soft” targets, such as pickup trucks and individuals, located 15,000 feet below.

Raytheon does not yet have a contract for the bomb and is building it entirely with its own money.

“We’re proactively anticipating the military’s need,” said Tretschok, who is testing the technology at the Army’s Yuma Proving Ground in Arizona.

In a similar fashion, drone-maker AeroVironment in Simi Valley didn’t wait for the government when it started to build its Switchblade mini-cruise missile to seek and destroy nearby targets.

The little missile, which looks less harmless than many Fourth of July fireworks, is fired from a mortar, unfolds its wings as it goes, and begins sending live video and GPS coordinates to the soldier who launched it.

The 2-foot-long battery-powered drone would be tipped with a tiny warhead and remotely operated from a handheld controller. It is being designed to fly above a warzone for at least five minutes for more than a mile at a time.

“This technology gives the war fighter the ability to pinpoint where and when he strikes,” said Steven Gitlin, an AeroVironment spokesman. “It’s all about precision.”

Critics say the technology may be too imprecise and hard to track, said Michael E. O’Hanlon, a military analyst at the Brookings Institution.

But the weapons have sophisticated internal guidance systems, which is key because much of today’s fighting takes place in crowded urban environments, such as targets located in or near population centers, he said.

“Weapons are sometimes only usable today if they’re small. The bottom line is: You’re not going to go around dropping 500-pound bombs everywhere,” O’Hanlon added. “Collateral damage is unacceptable in modern warfare.”

Knowing this, the military has embarked on using mini-drones for a “tagging, tracking and locating” initiative, which centers on secretly marking a target with invisible sprays and other identifiers so they don’t get lost in crowds.

Companies like Beaverton, Ore.-based Voxtel have benefited from the millions of dollars that the government is handing to contractors for research. The small 30-person company, which makes tagging products to prevent the counterfeiting of bank notes, lottery tickets and other items, now believes its microscopic nanocrystals — which become part of an invisible spray — may be are exactly what the military needs.

Tagging, tracking and locating “is a hot topic in government work,” said George Williams, company president. “It isn’t easy tracking somebody in a crowded urban environment like what is seen in today’s wars.”

Indeed. Earlier this year, the Air Force asked for proposals on developing a way to “tag” targets with “clouds” of unseen materials sprayed from quiet, low-flying drones.

In its request, the Air Force said “one method of distribution would be ‘crop-dusting’ from a sufficiently high altitude (to avoid detection) and letting the dust-cloud fall on a target or in front of it if it is moving.”

Other methods suggested to covertly mark the targets were to “pneumatically blow a cloud” or “burst above” them.

As the military moves into miniaturizing its weapon stockpile, contractors believe applications such as these may be crucial to the overall effort. “What we do is just one part of a complex system,” Voxtel President Williams said. “We play a small role.”

– William.Hennigan

Via L.A. Times