The UK will use the latest laser technology to track the position of satellites orbiting Earth and prevent them from colliding. The first test satellite is scheduled to launch from Cornwall Spaceport later this summer. Developed by British startup Lumi Space, the laser tracking system works by firing laser pulses from Earth to space objects and calculating how long it takes for the light to reflect.
According to the company’s pitch, it’s a “simple and powerful method of tracking satellites with lasers,” with the goal of delivering precise collision warnings in response to possible threats from space debris. A small test satellite carrying the new technology will be launched in September, along with several other satellites, from Virgin Orbit, the small satellite launch company owned by the Virgin Group, possibly on British soil. The first rocket launch carried out is of historic significance.
It is estimated that there are about 330 million pieces of space debris in Earth’s orbit, including 36,500 objects larger than 10 centimeters, abandoned satellites and rocket bodies, and even tools discarded by astronauts. Space debris can remain in Earth’s orbit for hundreds of years, posing a potential threat to the rapidly growing number of new satellites each year. As technology develops, more and more satellites are providing us with a variety of important services, including communications and climate change monitoring.
The test satellite, built in Wales by space tech start-up Space Forge, is fitted with retroreflector equipment developed by Lumi Space that bounces light back into place. Based on the time it takes for the laser to travel to and from the satellite, its route can be calculated.
The difficulty with this technique is that the laser beam must be aimed from the earth with an accuracy of 2 arcseconds. Meanwhile, the satellite is flying at nearly 29,000 kilometers per hour. Of course, such technology is not new. During the Apollo missions, NASA installed retroreflectors on the moon to precisely measure the distances of near-moon satellites from Earth.
However, Lumi Space’s new system is expected to be hundreds of times more accurate than current methods and will be the first to be offered to a private space company. The system would carry Space Forge’s satellites, or “platforms,” into space, where the light signals reflected back through the upper atmosphere would be received by the ground. Sheila Verdi of Lumi Space said: “This gives us information about the location of objects in space that is 500 to 1,000 times more accurate than other sources of information. It can be called the gold standard of space situational awareness.”