|Justin Bachman opines that one never sees the space surrounding our pale blue dot as a cosmic junkyard. Debris abounds, moving at high speeds and presenting plenty of difficulties for satellite operators who do business in orbit.|
This pollution poses a risk to greater commercialization of space, from the grand ambitions of Elon Musk of SpaceX Corp. and Jeff Bezos, Blue Origin, to other players who see promising futures for an array of space activities, from tourism, to imaging, to pharmaceutical research.
In low-earth orbit, space debris travels at velocities approaching 5 miles per second, roughly 18,000 mph, which gives even the small bits of junk enormous destructive energy. A 1-centimeter-wide aluminum sphere in low-earth orbit packs the kinetic equivalent of a safe moving at 60 mph. If it hits your satellite, well, that could ruin the equipment.
The clutter in low-earth orbit has grown rapidly over the past decade. In January 2007, the Chinese government destroyed an aged weather satellite in a missile test, creating what was estimated to be 2,500 pieces of new debris. That was followed by the February 2009 collision of a defunct 1,900-pound Russian Cosmos satellite with a 1,200-pound Iridium Communications Inc. satellite 490 miles above Siberia, generating even more orbital waste.
Some entrepreneurs see profit potential in helping to catalog better all that junk up there, the detritus of decades of unmanned and manned space flight. From launch, to operations, to disposal, satellite operators need help monitoring orbital paths and the potential for objects to stray into a collision course.
LeoLabs Inc., of Menlo Park, Calif., a spun off research center of SRI International last year, the company announced it has raised $4 million from a group of investors, including Airbus. LeoLab radar technology, to be used to keep an eye on all those pieces of high-speed trouble, evolved from research into earth ionosphere at SRI.