Space around Earth is becoming seriously overcrowded
November 17, 2023 - Fast-moving space junk – which ranges from defunct satellites and rocket stages down to rogue nuts, bolts and flecks of paint – is becoming increasingly problematic for space travel.
In September 2023, two large pieces of space junk came within 36 metres (118 feet) to colliding in low-earth orbit. Had they struck each other, the result would have scattered around 3,000 new pieces of fast-moving junk into orbit.
To help avert such incidents, NASA has awarded West Virginia University’s Space Systems Operations Research Laboratory $600,000 over three years to develop AI-controlled space lasers to zap orbital debris that threaten its operational spacecraft.
There are an estimated 9,000 satellites operating in low-Earth orbit today, increasing to possibly 60,000 and by 2030, due to the falling cost of rocket launches and satellites.
Space junk (aka orbital debris) consists of all the hardware humans have sent up into space but never retrieved, from defunct satellites and rocket stages down to rogue nuts, bolts, screws and flecks of paint.
Because the debris is moving so fast – around 24,000km/h (15,000mph), or ten times the speed of a bullet – a collision with something as small as a LEGO brick could seriously damage a satellite or crewed spacecraft, such as the International Space Station.
Other methods being explored by NASA to collect junk or move it out of Earth’s orbit include space tugs, robotic claws, inflatable trash bags and junk-trapping nets
In the meantime, California-based LeoLabs is using advanced algorithms, cloud computing tech, and a global network of ground-based radars to track objects in low Earth orbit in real-time so satellite operators can avoid them.