SpaceFence: The Movie

Paul Raven @ 20-01-2011

Via FlowingData, here’s a sort of promo-documentary-advertorial-edutainment spot for Lockheed Martin’s Space Fence system, designed to protect us from rogue bits of crap colliding in orbit above us.

As remarked at FD, I think it’s likely that a lot of the visualisations here are speculative, but the result is something that looks momentarily convincing in that ultimately-unconvincing-once-you’ve-thought-about-it Hollywood way – designed to sell the concept rather than the actuality, in other words. (In other words, I expect the Space Fence control room will look a lot less like the bridge of a space opera dreadnought… though there’s a part of me that wishes that wasn’t the case.)

Makes sense, really; if you want to convince people that putting in expensive systems to mitigate (or at least monitor) potential existential risk problems is worthwhile, making them look a bit sexy is a good tactic. I suppose this is a kind of design fiction, too…

[ Note: my assumption that the footage in the video partakes in artistic license is just that, an assumption; I would very much like to see the real thing, or evidence that the footage represents the reality. If anyone at Lockheed is reading, I’d love to drop in and take a closer look… though you’d probably have to stump up my airfare. 🙂 ]

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9 Responses to “SpaceFence: The Movie”

  1. Stephan says:

    My wife (who worked as a field botanist) came across one of their antenna installations in the San Diego area. To me, the antennas are actually more interesting than the (fictional?) control room. They even look like a fence. Wikipedia has more: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Air_Force_Space_Surveillance_System

  2. Paul Raven says:

    Good find, Stephan! Furthermore, discovering that there’s a place in Texas called Lake Kickapoo has pretty much made my day. 🙂

    [ Before anyone accuses me of picking on weird place names in the US, I would point out that my mother lives near a Yorkshire village called Wetwang; us Brits pretty much have silly place names all sewn up. ]

  3. Robert Koslover says:

    Maybe I’m just more accustomed to seeing similar facilities, but the various computers, data/graphical displays, and work areas of the people in the video did not appear to me like they were being faked for marketing purposes. And I don’t find it surprising that *tracking* space debris is considered by our government to be worth the relatively-modest investment (at least, when compared to other defense and/or space programs) in both technology and personnel that seems to be illustrated in the movie. That said, actually *eliminating* any significant amount of space debris is likely to be far more costly and difficult than simply detecting, tracking, displaying, and cataloging it. If/when we have a working system for that, it will likely be very impressive indeed.

  4. Robert Koslover says:
  5. Robert Koslover says:
  6. Ciro says:

    Does space debris qualify as an existential threat? This thing isn’t designed to deal with NEOs, is it?

  7. Paul Raven says:

    Robert: like I said, only an assumption – though the graphical *snap* of the displays in the video look a lot sexier than the stuff you linked there, which seems to mostly be 2D representations (albeit huge ones!) of strategic regions. The video’s full of 3D simulations of the space close to the Earth, which (unless I’m much mistaken) would take a ludicrous amount of power to render in realtime, and wouldn’t actually be necessary for the work in question (which I imagine would be more based on foresight and future projection than real-time response). Again, though, I’d be very happy to be proved wrong!

    Ciro: I think it counts, yeah; not such a big deal as a rogue asteroid, perhaps, but an aging nuclear powerplant from a big enough comsat could ruin a whole lot of people’s lives if it came down in the wrong place at the wrong angle. As for the NEOs, I may have misunderstood, but I got the impression that Space Fence is all about keeping an eye on whatever’s going on up at the top of the gravity well; that’s mostly going to be junk we left there, of course, but I’d imagine tracking recent rocky arrivals from the hinterlands would be just as possible. Again, though, I’m operating on assumptions here; had I more time to spend on it, I’d research in more detail. (This is the sort of thing I’d really love to make a living by writing about!)

  8. Robert Koslover says:

    Paul, I don’t have a good reference/link to provide you with, but I am pretty sure that the seemingly “ludicrous” amount of real-time computational power to which you refer is actually not so ludicrous at all by recent standards, using computers that are admittedly somewhat fancier than the kind you find commonly in your local discount office supply store (although even they are quite impressive by the standards of a few years ago). If you’ll allow me to speculate a bit, consider the following: Right now, you personally (yes you, if you have enough savings) can buy and assemble a single high-end scientific workstation with 12 CPU cores (e.g., start with a 64-bit HP Z800, or an Apple Mac Pro 12-core), add many 10s of GB of RAM (the HP Z800 supports 192GB), some high-speed RAID storage in multiple terabytes, and (very important) a couple of very-high-end graphics cards (which nowadays contain truly astounding GPUs) to manage all that 3D manipulation in all the outrageously high-res you want, to drive at least two very large LCD displays (e.g., 27″ or more) with resolutions in the multiple-thousands along each axis. Price? Roughly $30k-$75k to get started, depending on the details. Round that up to perhaps $100k-200k if you really want to combine some of the best of these (all pretty-much available now, commercial off the shelf) components. Now, take a half a dozen of those (or their rack-mounted equivalents more commonly used for professional applications) and, in my opinion/guess, you’d probably have way MORE computing, data processing, and display capabilities than you’d actually need to do the tasks suggested in the Lockheed video — and all that for well under $1M in computer costs. Now, compare that to the costs of paying the employee salaries and benefits, the real-estate, the not-especially-cheap RF/microwave hardware (e.g., the antennas mentioned by Stephan, above), etc, and you can see that the computing costs fraction of this project is really quite modest. In short, in terms of computer technology, we have already arrived in “the future.” And it is AWESOME! And best of all, the technology is continuing to improve, and rapidly.

  9. Robert Koslover says:

    Ok, here are fewer speculations and more facts:
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Air_Force_Space_Surveillance_System
    http://www.peterson.af.mil/library/factsheets/factsheet.asp?id=4730
    Excerpt: The “50th Electronic Systems Group, Electronic Systems Center awarded 3 $30-million contracts to Lockheed Martin, Northrop Grumman and Raytheon on 11 June 2009.”