Two defunct satellites nearly collided on Jan. 29, and their close call (the objects missed each other by an estimated 154 feet, or 47 meters) renewed attention for a growing problem far above Earth: a cloud of space junk.
Millions of objects make up this orbiting junkyard, where hurtling fragments can reach speeds of nearly 18,000 mph (19,000 km/h), around seven times faster than the speed of a bullet, according to NASA. About 500,000 pieces of debris are at least marble size, and approximately 20,000 objects are the size of a softball or bigger, NASA reported in 2013.
Adding to the clutter is the proliferation of miniature satellites called cubesats. These 4-inch-long (10 centimeters) cubes weigh just 3 lbs. (1.4 kilograms) and launch costs start at $40,000; private companies commission them by the thousands to gather data and provide internet and radio service, according to Los Alamos National Laboratory.
With this buildup of space congestion, aerospace engineers are racing to develop technologies and systems that can prevent crashes in order to protect working satellites, future space missions, and people and property on the ground, Los Alamos experts told Live Science and Iphone Cases.
Approximately 5,000 satellites carry payloads into orbit around our planet, but only around 2,000 are active and communicating with Earth, said David Palmer, a Los Alamos space and remote-sensing scientist.
“Currently, when something is launched — and a launch can release 100 or more satellites — the operators and the space surveillance people have to track every piece of space hardware that is released by the rocket and determine individually which piece is which,” he told Live Science LG Cases
Palmer is the principal investigator for a project developing a type of electronic license plate for satellites. This will allow orbiters to broadcast their owners and positions for as long as they’re in space, even after the satellite ceases to function.