Satellite risk of major collision “inevitable”

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The risk of satellites bumping into each other is already very real. Now China is joining the low Earth orbit ‘space race’ and planning to launch around 20,000 new craft into orbit.

Add this 20,000 to the near-40,000 planned by Elon Musk, another 3300 from Jeff Bezos, around 800 from the UK-backed OneWeb plus dozens of other projects and you have a potential recipe for disaster.

Space expert Jonathan McDowell of the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics in Cambridge, Mass, agrees. He sees emerging dangers for space travel from Earth, which is already full of space debris — and now even more so. “I think a major collision at some point is inevitable,” the astrophysicist said, speaking to Malaysia’s Star newssite.

McDowell suggests creating a supervisory body to control international traffic.

One business, LeoLabs (of California) has just raised $65 million in new funding for its satellite monitoring and collision detecting service. LeoLabs uses ground-based phased array radars — one in Alaska, one in Texas, two in New Zealand and two in Costa Rica — to monitor low Earth orbit, and to track and measure any object that flies through its observational area. One main advantage of LeoLabs’ tracking system is the size of the objects it can detect: as small as 2 centimeters across, as opposed to the much larger 10 centimeter objects tracked by legacy detection systems.

LeoLabs says there are around 250,000 objects in space more than 2 centimetres in size. Indeed, just a few days ago damage was caused to the important CanadaArm recovery device on the International Space Station by either a tiny meteorite or a piece of space junk.

LeoLabs says it sees around three to five close approaches involving larger objects per week.

The company will spend its fresh cash on new radar tracking sites around the world, upscaling its tracking software and increasing staff. The company already has radar stations in Alaska, Costa Rica, Texas and New Zealand.

One can only hope that disaster is avoided.


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