'A full picture': Montreal company to use satellites to prevent space junk collisions

From rocket parts to tiny flecks of paint from spacecraft, millions of pieces of debris or “space junk” are currently flying around at high speeds in Earth’s orbit.

According to NASA, this debris can reach speeds of 28,000 km/h – or seven times faster than a bullet – as it travels around the low Earth orbit (LEO).

As scientists and private companies send more spacecraft and satellites into space on various missions, there is a greater risk of collisions with orbital debris.

“The whole thing is really boiled down to momentum,” Stewart Bain, an engineer and the CEO of NorthStar Earth & Space, explained to CTV’s Your Morning on Thursday.

“A small object in space, down to one centimetre, a fleck of paint, moving at eight kilometres a second presents a serious danger to anything that’s in its path.”

That’s why Bain’s Montreal-based company is attempting to wade through the debris to prevent collisions by monitoring where the space junk is and alerting those that may have spacecraft in its way.

“When somebody is operating a satellite, they know where they are, they know where they’re headed, but they might not be able to see exactly what's coming towards them,” he said.

In order to provide them with this information, Bain’s company plans to send a commercial constellation into space in 2022, comprised of 12 satellites that will directly monitor objects.

“We’re going to be providing very accurate data from our satellites in space to give regulators, operators, insurance companies, commercial, government, everything, much more accurate positioning of where they are in space and where they are relative to other objects in space,” he said.

By sending the satellites, which will be equipped with telescopes, into space, Bain said they will be able to observe the objects at a much closer range than telescopes located on the ground, which are also vulnerable to storms and other inclement weather.

“Our system would be based in space. It would be well positioned to get a very, what we call near synoptic, an almost complete coverage of all the orbits from low Earth orbit all the way out to MEO medium Earth orbit, and highly elliptical and GEO orbits,” he said. “You’re going to get a full picture of space.”

When Bain’s satellites detect the possibility of a collision, he said they will be able to notify the operator of the satellite or spacecraft so they can conduct an evasive manoeuvre.

“You're giving them more lead time, you can give them more prediction into the future as to where the objects may be and that gives them more time to adjust,” Bain said.

Finally, Bain said his company’s technology may also help people interested in removing space junk from Earth’s orbit by providing them with data on where it is and where it’s headed.

“It will also give people a way to clean up space and want to grab objects and take them out of space better information to be able to do that,” he said. 

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