Researchers plan to use nano-satellites as space traffic cops

Researchers at the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory (LLNL), California, have developed and tested a series of ground-based mini-satellites. These satellites are so-called “Space Cops” as they act like the traffic cops in space. They were used by the LLNL team to capture a series of six images over a period of 60-hour in order to prove that they can be used to alter the orbit of other probes or space debris traveling in the low-Earth orbit. They plan to use the satellite network to prevent increasing collisions of satellites and space debris.

There are dozens of the nano-satellites working in low-Earth orbit, which can help prevent major satellites from colliding with each other or with space debris by relaying information about potential collisions or close encounters to satellite operators on the ground. “Eventually, our satellite will be orbiting and making…observations to help prevent satellite-on-satellite collisions in space,” explained Lance Simms, a computational engineer at LLNL.

According to LLNL, current technology only can pinpoint the path of a space object within a 1-kilometer range this means lack of precision and about 10,000 false alarms for every legitimate close call or collision. Because of the amount of false alarms, satellite operators tend to not take most warnings seriously enough to actually change the path of their satellites. Lawrence Livermore reported that it can reduce that 1-kilometer uncertainty to just 50 meters.

To minimize the chances of such collisions, the scientists at LLNL are looking forward to the nano-satellites. The LLNL’s Space-Based Telescopes for Actionable Refinement of Ephemeris (STARE) mission is an effort to prevent these types of collision scares. STARE will consist of a constellation of low-earth orbit nano-satellites designed in order to refine the orbits of satellites and space debris to less than 100 meters.

Project leader Wim de Vries and the rest of the STARE team have used the ground-based satellite to refine the orbit of the NORAD 27006 satellite based on four observations made during the first 24 hours of its flight. In addition, they predicted its trajectory to within less than 50 meters over the next 36 hours, the researchers explained. “The tools and analysis used to capture the images of NORAD 27006 and refine its orbit are the same ones that will be used during the STARE mission.”

Miniature satellites generally range from 1,000 pounds to something the size of a loaf of bread. In general, smaller and lighter satellites are not only less expensive to build but they’re also easier — and cheaper — to launch into orbit. Some can even piggyback on larger launches that have extra capacity. The LLNL has not yet reported on the specifics of the satellites it will be using.



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