A new technology developed by Lockheed Martin, called "Space Fence," tracks hundreds of pieces of debris floating around in Earth's orbit. (Lockheed Martin)

Lockheed Martin on Monday won a highly anticipated contract to build a “space fence” for the Pentagon that can track hundreds of thousands of pieces of debris floating in orbit around the Earth.

The Bethesda, Md.-based company beat out Raytheon for the $915 million Air Force contract to build the radar system, which will be located in the Marshall Islands in the Pacific Ocean.

Military officials say the space fence is vital for national security and everyday life because there is so much junk orbiting the Earth that it can collide with satellites used for everything from intelligence gathering and military communications to GPS and television.

It isn’t really a fence but rather a high-frequency radar that can see and track small pieces of debris. The bits of junk are then catalogued and monitored as they pass through the radar field until analysts, using massive computer databases, can predict where the pieces of debris will go and when they might come close enough to collide with something.

The system currently used by the Pentagon can track only about 20,000 space objects — a small fraction of the total amount.

Most man-made space junk, is situated in low-Earth orbit, at an altitude below 1,240 miles.

The new system will be able to track as much as 10 times more — and much smaller pieces of debris. Steve Bruce, a Lockheed vice president, said that the current system can see objects about the size of a basketball but that the new one will be able to see things the size of a baseball or smaller.

“We’ll know more about what’s in space than we do today,” he said. “This is an extremely important mission.”

Space debris can whip around the world as fast as 17,000 miles per hour. At that velocity, even something just a half-inch in diameter would pack a punch like a bowling ball traveling at 300 mph, according to NASA. Even flecks of paint can cause damage, officials say.

Lower orbits of space are full of all sorts of junk, and the problem is getting worse and more problematic as businesses and the Pentagon increasingly rely on outer space for all sorts of functions.

The flotsam has gathered during more than 50 years of spaceflight. There are spent rocket boosters that, laden with fuel, have exploded. Defunct satellites left in orbit have decomposed. And the junk begets more junk, as crashes create more debris, which can then cause even more collisions. Over the years, the litter has included a glove that an astronaut dropped in 1965 and a spatula that was being used to spread a sealant during a space repair of the shuttle Discovery in 2006.

Using the warnings issued by the Pentagon, operators of the 1,200 satellites in space move their equipment out of the way of the flying debris. In 2012, the United States issued more than 10,000 warnings of close calls to U.S. and international satellite owners, helping with 75 “avoidance maneuvers.”

Much of the debris is attributed to two events that added thousands of new pieces of garbage to space, severely exacerbating the problem but also raising awareness about the growing clutter (which was highlighted in the movie “Gravity”).

In 2007, China blew up one of its dead weather satellites, and then two years later, an active U.S. communications satellite crashed into a defunct Russian satellite.

Lockheed said in a statement that its system will be able to track more than 200,000 items in space “with improved accuracy and better timeliness.”

“With better situational awareness and tracking systems, collisions and dangers from space debris can be avoided,” the statement said. “The vastly improved performance offered by these radars will also enable the decommissioning of the decades-old Space Surveillance System. Space Fence will transform the future of space situational awareness while protecting our nation’s space assets.”

The company expects the system to be operational by 2018. And the contract comes with an option to build a second phase of the space fence in western Australia.

Raytheon could protest the decision, but Mike Nachshen, a Raytheon spokesman, declined to comment “pending our post-
decision debrief with the Air Force.”