US intelligence wants to track orbital space debris

(ORDO NEWS) — The US Intelligence Agency, which builds and operates Earth observation and communications satellites for military and intelligence purposes, is seeking solutions to the space debris problem.

In a request for information published Feb. 10, the Intelligence Advanced Research Projects Activity (IARPA) asks for “innovative approaches to detect and track currently undetectable orbital space debris.” Responses are due March 11th.

IARPA, an agency under the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, says a key concern for the intelligence community is the danger that tiny particles of debris not currently tracked by surveillance sensors could pose to “our valuable government and commercial space assets.”

“Collisions with orbital debris pose a significant risk to spacecraft in Earth orbit,” the RFI said. “Even the smallest particles of debris can cause serious damage.”

According to IARPA, there are more than 500,000 debris particles with a diameter of 1 to 10 centimeters and more than 100 million particles smaller than 1 centimeter in orbit around the Earth.

“Sub-centimeter debris cannot be detected by ground-based methods, and orbital detectors can only probe the population at detector altitude by colliding with the debris,” RFI says. “Since the termination of the Space Shuttle program in 2011, the US government no longer has a dedicated calibrated orbital sensor to detect orbital debris.”

Traditional ground-based sensors are improving, but detection sensitivity declines rapidly with altitude and is limited to observation at high latitudes, the agency says.

“Unfortunately, acquisition modes for ground sensors are unable to track small objects due to relatively high angular velocity and must remain in close observation mode to count the number of objects passing through the field of view.”

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