An El Segundo company is tracking 20,000 pieces of orbital debris to keep satellites safe

Much like on Earth, human activity has strewn trash throughout the edge of space

Mankind has been launching objects into space since 1957, and most of them are still up there orbiting the earth. Anything that’s no longer useful, from dead satellites to old rocket stages to lost tools, is considered space debris. This orbiting junk isn’t easy to clean up — blasting it just breaks it into smaller pieces, creating more potential threats to active satellites.

The El Segundo-based Aerospace Corporation is a federally funded research and development center that finds solutions for the space community, including a team of experts tracking thousands of space debris objects to prevent satellite collisions.

Aerospace Corp.’s Center for Orbital and Reentry Debris Studies, aka CORDS, works with the U.S. government to track manmade objects in space. If CORDS can determine the size and position of an object well enough to predict where it’s going to be in the future, it goes into a database they call “the catalog,” says CORDS Principal Director Ted Muelhaupt.

“We can see and track, to some level, a lot more than we actually put into the catalog,” he explains.

“There are roughly 22,000 objects in the catalog right now, but we believe there are millions of objects in orbit.”

About 63% of the catalog is fragments that have broken off of something else, 11% are rocket bodies, 11% are active satellites, and another 14% are inactive satellites.

“Every day you’re in orbit, you are inherently accepting the risk of the other crud that’s in orbit,” Muelhaupt says.

Satellite operators use the catalog to predict which objects may cross a satellite’s path and assess the likelihood of a collision. Even a tiny piece of debris can destroy a satellite, so if a collision is likely, they can maneuver the satellite avoid it. However, these maneuvers use up propellant, potentially limiting the device’s life expectancy.

CORDS can reliably track objects as small as 10 centimeters in diameter, but Muelhaupt says that much of the space debris in orbit is smaller than that.

“Every time we bring something back from space, we find that it has been pitted by little stuff, sometimes bigger stuff. Sometimes they punch holes. We replaced many of the shuttle windshields because they were getting pitted by small debris strikes.”

Within the next five to 10 years, governments and private companies such as Space X are expected to launch more than 10 times the number of satellites that have ever been launched in the past. But that’s not the only area in which technology is advancing.

Next month, Lockheed Martin is expected to activate the Space Fence, a new space surveillance system, on Kwajalein Atoll in the Marshall Islands. This technology, explains Muelhaupt, “puts up a fan beam of energy, and as stuff comes through, it tracks it.”

The Space Fence’s powerful radar should enable it to track objects as small as five centimeters. That means CORDS’ catalog of objects is about to get a lot bigger, because they’ll be able to see more of what’s out there. With the Space Fence, they expect to be able to track three to five times as many objects as before.

As mankind sends more and more objects into space, the amount of space debris will continue to increase, but our ability to track that debris — and avoid it — is improving, too. There’s still plenty of space for satellites to orbit in peace, says Muelhaupt, and CORDS intends to keep it that way.