Nov. 12, 2012 at 8:19 PM ET
Tracking the thousands of tiny objects cluttering up Earth's orbit is becoming an expensive proposition for the military. To save money and improve their coverage, they're soliciting help from amateur astronomers worldwide.
The DARPA-funded SpaceView project hopes to organize the astronomy community into an extension of the U.S. Air Force’s own sky-watchers, the Space Surveillance Network. There are estimated to be around half a million bits of space junk in orbit, but even with 29 space-monitoring sensors at their command, the Space Surveillance Network can only track the biggest 30,000 or so.
Deploying a dozen more sensor arrays and facilities would be expensive, so they're outsourcing junk tracking — to pretty much anyone who wants to help. Lt. Col. Travis Blake, the Air Force officer overseeing the program, explains on the SpaceView website:
There is an untold amount of potential in the amateur astronomy community that we hope to use to broaden our situational awareness in space. SpaceView should provide more diverse data from different geographic locations to ensure we have a robust understanding of the current and future state of our space assets.
Home astronomers will be given access to "high-quality astronomical hardware," and in return would handle the operation and housing of the gear. When it's not being used for tracking bits of fast-moving space trash, the government gear could be used for whatever its caretaker wanted: photography, observation, or teaching, for example.
Getting involved is as simple as signing up for SpaceView's mailing list and answering some questions regarding expertise and ability to securely house the equipment. No timeframe is mentioned, but the program is open to sign-ups right now, having begun registration over the weekend at the Arizona Science and Astronomy Expo in Tucson.
Devin Coldewey is a contributing writer for NBC News Digital. His personal website is coldewey.cc.