Air force ‘ig­nored’ ris­ing-sea warn­ings at $1b radar site

China Daily (USA) - - WORLD - By AS­SO­CI­ATED PRESS in­Welling­ton, New Zealand

TheUSAirForce is spend­ing nearly $1 bil­lion to build a radar in­stal­la­tion that will help­keep as­tro­naut­sand­satel­lites safe by track­ing pieces of space junk as small as a base­ball. That is, if global warm­ing doesn’t get in the way.

The Space Fence is be­ing con­structed on a tiny atoll in theMar­shall Is­lands that sci­en­tists say could be reg­u­larly swamped by ris­ing seas within a cou­ple of decades as a re­sult of cli­mate change. The salt wa­ter­could play­hav­ocwith­the equip­ment, the sci­en­tists say.

And The As­so­ci­ated Press found that nei­ther the mil­i­tary nor its con­trac­tor, Lock­heed Martin, gave se­ri­ous con­sid­er­a­tion to that threat when de­sign­ing the in­stal­la­tion and choos­ing a site, de­spite warn­ings from the is­land na­tion’s en­vi­ron­men­tal agency.

The fu­ture “does not look good for a lot of th­ese is­lands,’’ said Curt Stor­lazzi, an oceanog­ra­pher with theUS Ge­o­log­i­cal Sur­vey who is lead­ing a study at Kwa­jalein Atoll, where the Space Fence com­plex is be­ing built.

Dana Whal­ley, a civil­ian who is man­ag­ing the Space Fence pro­gram, said that the radar in­stal­la­tion has a pro­jected life­span of 25 years and that he doesn’t ex­pect sea lev­els to rise enough over that pe­riod to cause­aprob­lem. Bu­tif nec­es­sary, he said, the base could take steps to im­prove its sea­walls.

Still, be­cause of bud­get pres­sures, mil­i­tary equip­ment is often used well beyond its pro­jected life­span. In fact, a key part of the radar track­ing sys­tem that the Space Fence re­places was built dur­ing the dawn of the space age and was badly out­dat­ed­by­thetimeit­wasshut down 50 years later in 2013.

Mid­way­be­tweenHawai­iand Aus­tralia, the Mar­shall Is­lands are specks of land that typ­i­cally poke just a few me­ters above thePa­cific Ocean, mak­ingthem some of the world’s most vul­ner­a­ble places to ris­ing seas.

The US mil­i­tary has a long­stand­ing con­nec­tion to the is­lands. Bikini Atoll was used as a nu­clear test site after WorldWar II. Kwa­jalein Atoll, a bat­tle site dur­ing the war, is now an Army base, a bal­lis­tic mis­sile test site and an im­por­tant part of the mil­i­tary’s space surveil­lance net­work.

The grow­ing prob­lem of space de­bris was high­lighted in 2009, when an old Rus­sian satel­lite smashed into a com­mer­cial US satel­lite, cre­at­ing hun­dreds of pieces of or­bit­ing junk. The 2013 movie Grav­ity dra­ma­tized the threat to as­tro­nauts, who need to be safe from de­bris whether they’re trav­el­ing on the In­ter­na­tional Space Station or in a rocket.

Lock­heed Martin won the $915 mil­lion Space Fence con­tract in 2014 and broke ground last year. When the radar sys­tem be­comes op­er­a­tional in late 2018, it should in­crease the num­ber of ob­jects that can be tracked ten­fold to about 200,000 and pro­vide more pre­ci­se­in­for­ma­tionon­their or­bits.

How­ever, Stor­lazzi said ris­ing sea lev­els could sub­merge the is­land at least once a year, dam­ag­ing power ca­bles, sewer lines and other elec­tron­ics and hard­ware.

The study, funded pri­mar­ily by the De­fense De­part­ment, has not yet been peer-re­viewed or pub­lished. But it paints a much more dire fu­ture for the atoll than ear­lier stud­ies.

“We are talk­ing the next cou­ple of decades, not cen­turies, as pre­vi­ously thought,’’ Stor­lazzi said.


A US Army photo shows an aerial view of Kwa­jalein Atoll, where the Space Fence com­plex is be­ing in the Mar­shall Is­lands.

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