'Space Cops' To Patrol Low Earth Orbit And Watch For Space Junk

07/02/2014 10:47 GMT | Updated 07/02/2014 10:59 GMT

A fleet of tiny 'space cop' satellites could be launched to patrol Earth's orbit.

The mmall bots developed at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in the United States will "help control traffic in space" and watch for space junk.

There are at least 20,000 pieces of space junk (usually old satellites and craft) among the operational satellites currently in low-Earth orbit, and collisions between the two are increasingly common and damaging to communications systems.

There are a number of plans currently being developed to try and deal with the problem - including launching giant solar 'nets' to catch junk and return it to Earth (see video, above).

But it will also be important to more accurately track orbiting satellites, and provide operators with data to more them out of the path of nearby debris. The Space Surveillance Network exists for this purpose, but it is only able to track its objects with an accuracy of about 1,000 metres, due to the complexity of atmospheric drag.

Which is where the Lawrence Livermore team comes in.

Using its current ground-based instruments, it has been able to refine the orbit of a satellite to within 100 metres. And in a new research paper for the Journal of Small Satellites, it says it will be able to scale the system using a network of orbiting satellites to provide the SSN with much more accurate data about low Earth orbits.

The result will essentially be a fleet of "space cops" - small instruments able to monitor and advise on traffic above our heads.

Eventually our satellite will be orbiting and making the same sort of observations to help prevent satellite-on-satellite and satellite-on-debris collisions in space," said Lance Simms, lead author of the study.