Feb 4, 2020 - Science

The big business of tracking junk in space

Animated GIF of a target locating a trash can floating around the earth

Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

Thousands of pieces of space junk are speeding around Earth, but current tracking tools aren't yet able to pinpoint where most of the junk is at any given time, putting other satellites in danger — and fueling a growing industry to track debris and satellites.

Why it matters: Trackers warn collisions can knock out communications, cause millions of dollars in damage, and add to the price of insurance and therefore operation.

The big picture: Hundreds of satellites are expected to launch to orbit in the next few years, greatly increasing the number of spacecraft — and possibly junk — circling Earth.

  • The danger isn't in quantity though — space is big.
  • The risk comes from not knowing where defunct satellites, spent rocket bodies or other debris are located.

Driving the news: Last week, two dead spacecraft may have come within just a few meters of colliding above Pennsylvania.

  • People and companies on the ground were tracking the event closely, but there were different estimates about where exactly the satellites were, complicating predictions around whether the two objects would collide.

What's happening: The Air Force is able to follow more than 20,000 pieces of space junk, but NASA estimates that there are millions of tiny pieces of debris that could still harm functional satellites in orbit. Today, a handful of companies are popping up to try to fill in those gaps and make a profit from satellite and junk tracking.

  • LeoLabs — which sounded the alarm about the possible collision last week — plans to have six ground-based radars to track pieces of space junk down to 2 centimeters.
  • NorthStar Earth and Space expects to launch the first of its space junk-tracking satellites as early as next year after raising more than $38 million in 2018.
  • Others are working to compile the data collected by companies in order to make their own predictions and satellite tracks.
"The stuff the government does is good ... It's got its place, but we all know that the tea leaves aren't as dependable as they could be. The accuracy is not great."
— Victoria Samson of the Secure World Foundation told Axios

Yes, but: The best way to figure out where exactly all of the junk in orbit is may be to combine data from multiple sources and aggregate it in one place.

  • Companies are also building their businesses around the idea that satellite operators, and even insurance providers for the space industry, will want to use their data to make sure that spacecraft remain safe in orbit.
  • However, it's not clear those organizations will want to pay for the service in the future when they could either create their own tracking methods or use free services instead.

The bottom line: Private companies are close to surpassing the government in tracking satellites and space junk, looking to profit as space becomes more popular.

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