Los Alamos National Laboratory

Los Alamos National Laboratory

Delivering science and technology to protect our nation and promote world stability

Averting Orbital Apocalypse

Crucial new satellite-tracking technology relies on perceiving the nearly imperceptible.
February 1, 2019
M&M’S

Orbital space is dangerously crowded. The U.S. Air Force tracks and publicly shares data on more than 19,000 orbiting objects, shown here with satellites in red, rocket bodies in blue, and other debris in gray. CREDIT: James Yoder, http://stuffin.space

The 2013 movie Gravity (starring Sandra Bullock and George Clooney) portrayed this runaway space-collision crisis.

The U.S. Air Force conducts extensive satellite tracking and can often arrange for one object to adjust its trajectory to avoid a potential collision. But to enact such a solution requires that both objects have been located and that at least one of them is capable of receiving instructions, equipped with a means of propulsion, and identifiable, so that the satellite’s operator can be contacted and instructed to make the course adjustment—hopefully with sufficient lead time. Otherwise, there’s no seeing the approaching brake lights, slowing down, or changing lanes. There are no space traffic jams. Only collisions.

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