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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

Updated 15 mins ago - Politics & Policy

Coronavirus dashboard

Illustration: Eniola Odetunde/Axios

  1. Health: Most vulnerable Americans aren't getting enough vaccine information — Fauci says Trump administration's lack of facts on COVID "very likely" cost lives.
  2. Education: Schools face an uphill battle to reopen during the pandemic.
  3. Vaccine: Florida requiring proof of residency to get vaccine — CDC extends interval between vaccine doses for exceptional cases.
  4. World: Hong Kong puts tens of thousands on lockdown as cases surge — Pfizer to supply 40 million vaccine doses to lower-income countries — Brazil begins distributing AstraZeneca vaccine.
  5. Sports: 2021 Tokyo Olympics hang in the balance.
  6. 🎧 Podcast: Carbon Health's CEO on unsticking the vaccine bottleneck.

DOJ: Capitol rioter threatened to "assassinate" Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez

Supporters of former President Trump storm the U.S. Captiol on Jan. 6. Photo: Kent Nishimura / Los Angeles Times via Getty Images

A Texas man who has been charged with storming the U.S. Capitol in the deadly Jan. 6 siege posted death threats against Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.), the Department of Justice said.

The big picture: Garret Miller faces five charges in connection to the riot by supporters of former President Trump, including violent entry and disorderly conduct on Capitol grounds and making threats. According to court documents, Miller posted violent threats online the day of the siege, including tweeting “Assassinate AOC.”

Schumer calls for IG probe into alleged plan by Trump, DOJ lawyer to oust acting AG

Jeffrey Clark speaks next to Deputy US Attorney General Jeffrey Rosen at a news conference in October. Photo: Yuri Gripas/AFP via Getty Images.

Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) on Saturday called for the Justice Department inspector general to investigate an alleged plan by former President Trump and a DOJ lawyer to remove the acting attorney general and replace him with someone more willing to investigate unfounded claims of election fraud.

Driving the news: The New York Times first reported Friday that the lawyer, Jeffrey Clark, allegedly devised "ways to cast doubt on the election results and to bolster Mr. Trump’s continuing legal battles and the pressure on Georgia politicians. Because Mr. [Jeffrey] Rosen had refused the president’s entreaties to carry out those plans, Mr. Trump was about to decide whether to fire Mr. Rosen and replace him with Mr. Clark."

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