IARPA Seeks Ways to Track Nontrackable Space Junk


Right now, more than 100 million pieces of space debris smaller than 1 cm orbit Earth.

The intelligence community’s key research and development unit is on the search for innovative approaches to pinpoint and monitor currently nontrackable space junk that’s increasingly placing the nation’s space assets at risk.

“Since the retirement of the Space Shuttle program in 2011, the [United States government] no longer has a dedicated, calibrated on-orbit orbital debris detection sensor,” Intelligence Advanced Research Projects Activity officials wrote in a request for information released Thursday. “IARPA seeks to understand the interaction of orbital debris with the surrounding space environment, and whether the resulting phenomena can be used for the detection, mapping and tracking of currently nontrackable orbital space debris.”

Commercial space activity is rapidly rising, alongside calls to reduce the growing buildup of shreds of rockets and satellites that are placing Earth-orbiting spacecraft at serious risk. Even the tiniest pieces of trach in orbit can cause major impacts—due to an average impact velocity of roughly 22,500 MPH.

“Currently, there are over 500,000 pieces of debris between 1 and 10 cm in diameter, and over 100 million particles smaller than 1 cm orbiting the Earth,” officials confirm in the RFI.

Although traditional ground-based sensor detection techniques continue to improve, the capabilities are not at a point where they can successfully track debris that’s on the small side, or junk in certain orbits beyond lower Earth orbit, or LEO.

Via the RFI, IARPA invites interested entities to submit white papers describing “promising approaches for the detection and tracking of orbital debris in the size range from 0.1 cm to 10 cm, traveling in any orbital plane around planet Earth.” 

For context, 0.1 cm objects can be as small as a grain of sugar.

Approaches may include existing or newly proposed sensor technology, probabilistic detection techniques for low signal-to-noise objects and more.

Responses to the RFI are due by March 11, and IARPA intends to host a virtual invitation-only workshop on this effort later in the spring.