Here is a prototype of an alarm system to avoid satellite collisions

A new collision warning system could help satellite operators sleep a little more peacefully. The prototype system, developed by the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), is designed to alert operators when their spacecraft may be on a collision course with another object. This is a real and growing concern given the increasing crowding of Earth’s orbit.

The system, which was featured in a webcast press conference on February 11, is called the Open-Architecture Data Repository (OADR). It’s a cloud database that keeps an eye on the growing population in Earth’s orbit and warns you if there’s a danger of a collision, just as you might get a weather warning if you’re on the way to a storm.

It works like this: The OADR collects data on space conditions from a series of different scans from ground sensors that together cover much of the globe. The OADR is connected to both U.S. government-affiliated ground stations and a network of trading posts (especially in the Southern Hemisphere). The data also includes space weather observations and real-time telemetry and maneuvering plans from other satellites.

The OADR takes all that data and creates an image of the orbital environment, which it then uses to assess whether there are looming “conjunctions”, close encounters between orbiting objects. If there are any, the OADR can relay that data to satellite operators as a kind of weather forecast, giving them (ideally) several days to move their satellite off that route.

Credits: Universidad Carlos III de Madrid

“A hurricane notification shows a cone of probability that is constantly changing as new data is obtained,” Scott Leonard, special adviser to the director of NOAA’s Office of Space Commerce, explained at the February 11 press conference. The OADR works in a similar way.

OADR is still under development; the system just unveiled is a prototype. According to Leonard, the OADR team has yet to iron out some kinks by automating the data collection and forecasting processes. If all goes according to plan, the OADR will be fully operational by 2025.

There are already a number of commercial companies providing this type of space tracking services, but the creators of the OADR hope it will eventually have more data of those services and better predictive capabilities to boot.

It’s hardly a secret that Earth’s orbit is getting quite crowded. There are already at least 23,000 objects in space with a diameter of 10 centimeters or more. That number is bound to grow. “We expect 57,000 new satellites by 2030,” Stephen Volz, assistant secretary of commerce for environmental observation at NOAA, said at the press conference.

And space collisions aren’t just fantasy nightmare stuff. Last year, for example, a Chinese military satellite collided with a piece of a 25-year-old Russian rocket. The satellites of SpaceX’s Starlink broadband constellation, which could one day consist of more than 40,000 spacecraft, are of great concern.

In the eyes of its administrators, the OADR aims to keep track of all the biggest threats in advance. But it will likely take some time before any system can keep track of the millions of tiny objects in orbit, from trash to bits of metal to flakes of paint – anything that can cause catastrophic damage given the speed at which they move up there.