Researchers plan to use nano-satellites as space traffic cops

Dozens of tiny satellites in low Earth orbit could help reduce space junk collisions

Scientists at the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory are working on a project that will have a team of small satellites acting as traffic cops in space.

Dozens of the satellites working in low-Earth orbit could 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," Lance Simms, Computational and Digital Electronics Engineer at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, said in a written statement.

Collisions with space junk, which ranges from old defunct satellites to random nuts and bolts, are a growing problem for satellite operators. With the amount of space junk continually growing, the chances of a satellite being hit incresses.

Last spring, NASA engineers guided the Fermi Gamma-ray Space Telescope out of the path of a near miss with a defunct 3,100-pound Soviet spy satellite that dates back to the Cold War.

Without the eleventh-hour maneuver, the two objects, which are speeding around the Earth at thousands of miles an hour in perpendicular orbits, were expected to come within 700 feet of each other.

The satellite and the space telescope would have occupied the same point in space within 30 milliseconds of each other.

A collision would have led to further problems since NASA calculated that, with a speed relative to Fermi's of 27,000 mph, a collision would have released as much energy as two-and-a-half tons of high explosives, destroying both spacecraft and further littering Earth's orbit with dangerous debris.

To minimize the chances of such collisions , the scientists at Lawrence Livermore are looking to nano-satellites.

Miniature satellites generally range from 1,000 pounds to something the size of a loaf of bread. Lawrence Livermore hasn't yet reported on the specifics of the satellites it will be using.

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.

According to Lawrence Livermore, current technology only can pinpoint the path of a space object within a 1-kilometer range. That lack of precision means there 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.

The lab has not yet reported how soon the nano-satellite traffic cops will be launched.

Sharon Gaudin covers the Internet and Web 2.0, emerging technologies, and desktop and laptop chips for Computerworld. Follow Sharon on Twitter at @sgaudin, on Google+ or subscribe to Sharon's RSS feed. Her email address is

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