Earth Needs Global Space Traffic Control System To Avoid Collisions In Orbit

With thousands of spacecraft, satellites, pieces of space junk and metal debris orbiting the Earth, experts have begun to call for a global space traffic control system like the ones used in airports.

To deal with all the metal flying around the earth, engineers must make detailed launch plans with exacting launch window times to avoid deadly collisions, Tom Stroup, president of the Satellite Industry Association, told Sputnik News.

“The real issue is not the number of the satellites that are operated nowadays, but the projection of a number of satellites that will be operated in the next five years.”

To avoid a deadly collision that could destroy a billion dollar spacecraft, NASA engineers and their international counterparts must create a flight plan similar to ones filed by airplane pilots.

With the number of spacefaring nations growing, the usable area above our planet is much smaller than when space exploration first started, Lockheed Martin’s Bruce Schafhauser wrote on the official company blog.

“With hundreds of thousands of objects in Earth orbit, space debris and the associated risk of potential collisions threaten space-based assets and critical systems that merit protection.”

The space age began in 1957 with launch of Sputnik and today there hundreds of thousands of satellites, spacecraft, and pieces of space trash floating in orbit above Earth.

The number of satellites in orbit has increased by 40 percent in the past five years and currently numbers about 14,000 known devices including the International Space Station and the Hubble Space Telescope.

There are also some 21,000 pieces of space trash, not including another 500,000 bits and pieces smaller than 10 cm. All of these pieces of metal are circling the Earth at an amazing 17,500 mph, Schafhauser wrote on Lockheed Martin’s blog.

“The number of small satellites and satellite operators around the world is skyrocketing, rapidly crowding an environment already congested today.”

All the metal flying around in orbit has the chance to damage satellites, space shuttles, and the International Space Station, which is why the group of international spacefaring nations is planning a global traffic control network.

There are two important questions to consider: who’s paying for it all and who’s in charge.

In the United States, the job would fall to the FAA, which is in charge of monitoring air traffic, but their jurisdiction doesn’t extend into space or past international boundaries, Stroup told Sputnik News.

“We don’t want to create a regime that only the U.S. companies are complying with. Because there’s a potential that regulatory costs and hurdles will be too high.”

High tech communication companies that operate fleets of satellites have already started the process of tracking all the space debris in orbit around the Earth, but the lack of any international cooperation makes the process more difficult.

For the U.S., the answer lies in the construction of a Space Fence, which uses high-powered, ground-based radar to improve detection of space debris and increase warning times in case a collision is detected. It’s due to be completed in 2018 and will be used by the Air Force to secure valuable military satellites.

Removing the massive amount of space junk floating around in orbit above the Earth would also make it easier for spacecraft to navigate safely.

Earlier this year, China launched a small robot designed to collect space debris and both the U.S. and Europe plan to follow up with space trash collectors of their own, but it will be many years before their task is complete.

For now, space engineers will have to deal with filing detailed flight plans to avoid the mounting pile of space debris.

[Photo credit: Andrey VP/Shutterstock]