Space traffic is pretty much unregulated. There are no traffic lights telling you when to stop or go. There are no stop signs around to help prevent collisions. One could say it’s a complete free-for-all. It doesn’t help that there is a huge amount of space debris, satellites and space vessels floating around out there. According to NASA, it is estimated that more than 500,000 objects are orbiting the Earth, some of which are moving at a speed of 17,500 mph or more. At that rate even the tiniest of fragments could shred right through a large satellite or vessel.
The Threat of Space Collisions
If any of the aforementioned objects were to crash into one another it could have detrimental effects back here on Earth. For example, the destruction of a military satellite could wreak havoc on all our troops leaving them with little to no satellite imagery or GPS functionality.
Of course, that’s not even taking into account what would happen if one of the space vessels or shuttles carrying humans was involved in an accident.
Long story short, space collisions are a pretty big threat, but not for long. A group of scientists at the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory have created robotic “traffic cops” that will help monitor traffic in space. The devices are actually mini-satellites that will work to prevent collisions by monitoring the movement of various objects in orbit.
What Exactly Are These Space-Age Robo Cops?
The mission has been dubbed the Space-Based Telescopes for Actionable Refinement of Ephemeris mission or STARE for short. Essentially, here is how it works.
It is very difficult for teams back on Earth to predict exactly where an orbiting satellite or object is. There are several different variables such as atmospheric drag, which can make precise location detection nearly impossible. Because of this, the Space Surveillance Network – the group tasked with watching the orbiting debris and monitoring for collisions – has to constantly monitor all objects, vessels and debris orbiting the planet.
Even with all of the extra work, the surveillance team can only predict an object’s position in orbit within one kilometer, including satellites. That uncertainty causes hundreds if not thousands of false alarms every year.
The STARE mission goal is to reduce the amount of uncertainty to 100 meters or so, far less than the current standard of 1 kilometer. To prove it can be done, the Lawrence Livermore team, led by Wilm de Vries and Vincent Riot launched a demonstration or test mission, if you will.
With all of the excess junk out there in orbit we might as well have a bunch of used CAT machinery floating around to help clean it up. Think about it: we could have a space CAT to scoop it up over here, a John Deere to grind it up over there. Of course, we all know that’s not possible–especially since someone would need to man the machinery. Cue in the Lawrence Livermore’s “traffic cops”…
Making the Idea A Reality
Since the team’s ideas were just that–ideas–they needed to prove somehow that their devices would work. Naturally, they used the NORAD 27006 satellite as part of their demonstration. Using six images captured by a ground-based satellite over 60 hours, for the first 24 hours of their mission they took calculations through careful observation. With the information they collected they were able to predict the NORAD’s position and trajectory within less than 164 feet for the next 36 hours. That’s a lot closer than the original 328 feet they had planned for, so of course the team was successful!
After all of that, the team was able to change the orbit and trajectory of the NORAD satellite from Earth, preventing any suspected collisions along its travel path.
When their “traffic cop” devices are sent into orbit they will be able to employ the same types of observations and strategies to prevent a whole slew of in-orbit collisions. To break it down: the mini-satellites will be able to prevent collisions involving satellite-to-satellite, satellite-to-debris and other incidents.
The team’s findings were published in the Journal of Small Satellites. So, you can check out the recent edition if you’d like to know more about the mission.