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This collision avoidance tool could cut the risk of in-orbit crashes

The technology is designed to address one of the most pressing issues facing spacecraft operators in low-Earth orbit.
Computer generated images of objects in Earth orbit that are currently being tracked by NASA's Orbital Debris Program Office.
The U.S. Department of Defense tracks more than 27,000 pieces of space junk in low-Earth orbit.NASA

A new collision avoidance platform that helps space companies keep tabs on their satellites and surroundings could cut the risk of crashes in orbit that generate harmful space junk.

Slingshot Aerospace, a startup based in Austin, Texas, and El Segundo, California, announced Thursday the launch of the communications platform that will allow satellite operators to assess the location of spacecraft in their fleet and coordinate any maneuvers that may be necessary to dodge objects nearby.

The technology is designed to address one of the most pressing issues facing spacecraft operators in low-Earth orbit, as the area around the planet has become increasingly crowded with satellite systems for telecommunications, GPS and other functions.

The platform, called Slingshot Beacon, aims to reduce the risk of collisions in low-Earth orbit, said Melanie Stricklan, co-founder and CEO of Slingshot Aerospace. The company's pilot program includes the United Kingdom-based communications company OneWeb, the data and analytics firm Spire Global, and several other operators, accounting for 53 percent of satellite constellations in low-Earth orbit, she added.

Collision avoidance will be an essential component of the growing private space industry, particularly as an estimated 115,000 satellites are expected to be in operation in low-Earth orbit by 2030. This is in addition to more than 27,000 pieces of space junk — ranging from defunct satellites to spent rocket parts to wayward bits of debris — that are already tracked by the U.S. Department of Defense.

Several different agencies, including NASA and the Defense Department, track orbital debris but Slingshot Aerospace is hoping to make it easier for companies to communicate about collision risks and avoid potentially catastrophic situations in orbit.

"We've created a new Wild West and it didn't have to be this way," Stricklan said. "We have to keep these orbits sustainable because the entire world is dependent on space."

Slingshot Beacon is designed to help companies resolve issues in orbit, notify other satellite operators of planned maneuvers and mitigate future risks. Stricklan said she hopes the tool will invite greater collaboration among companies and among various nations.

"This allows us to reduce uncertainty and communicate across borders, across companies and across silos that exist today," she said.

The mounting space junk problem was highlighted recently, after an object crashed into the International Space Station and damaged the orbiting lab’s robotic arm. The incident, found during a routine inspection May 12, demonstrated the growing threat posed by orbital debris and the need for greater situational awareness in orbit.