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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.

Go deeper:

Go deeper

Dan Primack, author of Pro Rata
3 hours ago - Economy & Business

FTX CEO predicts more U.S. crypto flight

Photo: "Axios on HBO"

FTX doesn't look much like a company valued at $25 billion. Its new headquarters, located in a sleepy part of The Bahamas, is so nondescript as to not even have a sign. But it does expect to soon have neighbors.

Driving the news: Founder and CEO Sam Bankman-Fried tells "Axios on HBO" to expect "more and more crypto flight from the states" if the U.S. doesn't soon create a regulatory regime for cryptocurrencies.

Developed countries reveal $100 billion climate finance plan ahead of COP26

Alok Sharma, head of the UN Climate Summit in Glasgow, speaks in Paris on Oct. 12. ( Li Yang/China News Service via Getty Images)

After 12 years of fits and starts, industrialized nations on Monday put forward a detailed plan to provide at least $100 billion annually in climate aid to developing countries starting by 2023.

Why it matters: The plan, presented by representatives of Canada and Germany, is aimed at defusing one of the biggest sources of tension at COP26, which is the failure of industrialized nations to follow through on their financial commitments.

3 hours ago - Health

Moderna says COVID vaccine shows strong immune response in kids

Photo: Martin Galindo/Long Visual Press/Universal Images Group via Getty Images

Moderna on Monday released trial results for its coronavirus vaccine for children aged 6 to 11, saying it provides a "robust" immune response after two doses.

Why it matters: Moderna said it will officially submit the results to the Food and Drug Administration for authorization in "the near term," meaning we could soon see two coronavirus vaccines available to protect approximately 28 million more kids in the U.S.

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