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Twinkle, Twinkle, Little… Piece of Space Garbage

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Unless your account is overdrawn or your car’s map tells you the nearest Pizza Hut is in the middle of a lake, you don’t usually give a second thought to withdrawing money from an ATM or using your GPS. But the satellites that beam that crucial information to us every day are at risk…from garbage.

Yes, there is garbage in space. Abandoned or defunct satellites, old rocket engines, and other assorted parts are all floating out there in low Earth orbit (LEO). LEO ranges from 100 to 1,240 miles above the Earth’s surface, and it’s generally where most of our satellites hang out. In 2009, a Russian satellite collided with an Iridium commercial communications satellite, scattering hundreds of pieces of debris. As those pieces ran into other pieces, they broke apart and became smaller, harder to track, and more dangerous. In the 1970s, NASA scientist Donald Kessler, envisioned a scenario – aptly named Kessler Syndrome – where cascading orbital collisions would create increasing debris fields, eventually destroying our assets in space.

 

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Since the 1960s, the U.S. Air Force has relied on the Space Surveillance Network to track orbiting objects. As the years have advanced, so has the quantity of space debris, though our ability to reliably track and record it has not. Enter Lockheed Martin’s Space Fence. It’s not a fence in the literal sense. Space Fence is a highly advanced, ground-based radar networked with existing systems to detect far more debris, and with greater accuracy.

So go ahead and withdraw the money you need from the drive-through ATM, check on the weather from your phone, and program your GPS with the address of your favorite restaurant. Space Fence will watch out for the satellites that provide those underrated conveniences for us. And we won’t have to worry.