The emerging 'space junk' business

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Since we began exploring outer space, we have been trashing the place.

Call it "space debris" or "space junk," there is enough material floating through space or orbiting the Earth that some companies believe they can build a business around it, according to an article in Nature News. Space debris can be natural, such as meteroids, or human-made, such as old satellites or parts of spacecraft. A single piece of space debris can travel at speeds up to 17,500 miles per hour, well enough to damage a spacecraft or satellite in a collision, according to NASA.

So far, the U.S. military is the world's main monitor of free-floating junk, and it warns governments or other operators of hazards. But companies such as Pennsylvania's Analytical Graphics is developing their own junk-watching capability based on a large network of "off-the-shelf" sensors that currently tracks more than 6,000 objects in the Earth's orbit, up to 42,000 kilometers above the Earth's surface. That's far less than the 23,000 objects the military tracks with its multi-million-dollar telescopes and instruments, but Analytical Graphics is betting its system will prove useful to operators that want to protect the investments they launch into space.

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Collisions with space debris are still rare, but they do happen. They can also compound the problem that caused them in the first place. An old Russian satellite collided with a functioning U.S.-based commercial satellite in 2009, instantly creating 2,000 pieces of new debris to space, according to NASA.

Sometimes the collisions are even intentional, For example, the Chinese government fired a missile to destroy an old weather satellite in 2007, as a way of testing an anti-satellite program. The collision added 3,000 pieces of new space debris.

The U.S. military performs its junk-watching service for free, but the private operators say the information provided by government is having a hard time keeping up with all of the new objects in space as the area around Earth becomes increasingly crowded. There are more than 20,000 objects larger than a softball floating in near space, another 500,000 larger than a marble, and millions more so small they are untrackable.

Read the full article in Nature News.