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Why tracking space junk is big business

media This computer-generated image released by the European Space Agency shows trackable objects in orbit around Earth. ESA / AFP

Tracking space junk whizzing around the Earth may be the next frontier for big business amid plans by a Canadian start-up to put a sophisticated monitoring system into orbit by 2021.

Using a network of 40 satellites equipped with high-tech sensors, NorthStar Earth and Space hopes to respond to growing demand by both companies and governments for real-time data that can predict collisions in space.

With almost 2,000 active satellites in orbit – not to mention thousands of other defunct satellites and 130 million pieces of debris – the ever-increasing chance of a mid-orbit crash are good reason for satellite owners to feel uneasy.

Having a clear idea of the risks is especially desirable when considering the loss of a single satellite can cost hundreds of millions of dollars.

“At the moment space junk is only tracked from Earth, says Sarah Lieberman, a senior lecturer at Canterbury Christchurch University whose work focuses on outer space policy.

“The US Department of Defence tracks more than 500,000 pieces of debris – anything over a centimetre long in low Earth orbit, and anything larger than a metre across in geosynchronous orbit.”

Because people have always seen space as so big, there’s been no real sense of urgency about cleaning it up or making sure people don’t litter.

All debris poses a threat

Hurtling around the planet at speeds upwards of 28,000 kilometres per hour, even small pieces of debris wield a hugely destructive force.

“Something the size of a marble travelling at those speeds could do a huge amount of damage – and could easily go straight through a satellite,” Lieberman says.

So what exactly is space debris, and what’s it made of? Everything in the Earth’s orbit is considered debris, unless it’s operational. This includes junk left over from space missions as well as thousands of decommissioned satellites – all of it stuck in endless orbit, forming a huge galactic traffic jam.

An artist's impression released by the European Space Agency depicting the debris field in low Earth orbit, which extends to 2000 kilometres above the Earth's surface. HO / ESA / AFP

No global regulation to manage space traffic

Despite the dilemma revolving overhead, there is no international standard for managing space traffic. Most of the tracking is done using ground-based telescopes and radars that need to account for distortions caused by the Earth’s weather and atmosphere.

The US Strategic Command’s space surveillance network, originally intended to track missiles, issues alerts when the probability of a collision is higher than 1 in 10,000.

Interview: Dr Sarah Lieberman, space policy expert, Canterbury Christchurch University 18/09/2019 Listen

“The US military has struggled to upgrade its computer systems to improve the accuracy of the warnings and be able to accept different kinds of data,” Brian Weeden, of the US-based Secure World Foundation, told MIT Technology Review.

Northstar will be hoping that its new satellite constellation, which will track debris using hyperspectral, infrared, and optical sensors – as well as artificial intelligence – will be a game-changer, and the commercial opportunities of protecting orbiters will be plentiful.

New space economy offers lucrative opportunities

The company – which also has the backing of the Canadian government – says the new space economy, worth an estimated US 1 trillion dollars a year, will rest on the “safety and security of satellites and high-value space assets in orbit”.

For Lieberman, though, tracking space debris is a lesser problem than working out how to take it out of orbit altogether. “Space has been traditionally seen as a very large area, but the usable part of space – what we call low Earth orbit – isn’t very high up and therefore isn’t very large,” she says.

“Because people have always seen space as so big, there’s been no real sense of urgency about cleaning it up or making sure people don’t litter.

“It is thought that in the next few years there’s going to have to be some serious legislation passed – a worldwide global regulation – on what people do with satellites when they’re decommissioned and need to be taken out of low Earth orbit.”

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