You never see it in those lovely NASA pictures of Earth, but the space surrounding our pale blue dot is a cosmic junkyard. Debris abounds, moving at ludicrous speeds and presenting plenty of hassles for satellite operators who do business in orbit.

This pollution poses an existential risk for greater commercialization of space, from the grand ambitions of Elon Musk’s SpaceX Corp. and Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin to other players who see promising futures for an array of space activities, from tourism, to imaging, to pharmaceutical research.

In low-Earth orbit, space debris travels at velocities approaching 5 miles per second — roughly 18,000 mph — which gives even the tiniest bits of junk enormous destructive energy. A 1-centimeter-wide aluminum sphere in low-Earth orbit packs the kinetic equivalent of a safe moving at 60 mph.

If it hits your satellite, well, that could ruin the whole day.

Aggregate too much debris in certain areas, and low-Earth orbit becomes an increasingly difficult and far costlier environment for commercial companies. Today, satellite operators periodically maneuver their birds to avoid object strikes just as NASA must do with the International Space Station. The key, however, is knowing what’s headed your way.

“Knowing where stuff is is the first part of the problem,” said Bill Ailor, a research fellow at the Aerospace Corp., which specializes in tracking space debris. “Over the longer term we need to be getting much better [tracking] data so satellite operators don’t move unnecessarily.”

To that end, some entrepreneurs see profit potential in helping to catalog better all that junk up there, the detritus of decades of unmanned and manned space flight. From launch, to operations, to disposal, satellite operators need help monitoring orbital paths and the potential for objects to stray into a collision course.

One such business is LeoLabs Inc., of Menlo Park, Calif. Spun out of research center SRI International last year, the company has announced it raised has $4 million from a group of investors, including Airbus Ventures, the San Jose, Calif.-based venture capital fund established by Airbus Group two years ago. LeoLab ‘s radar technology, to be used to keep an eye on all those pieces of high-speed trouble, evolved from research into earth’s ionosphere at SRI.

LeoLabs said it has opened a second radar-tracking facility, in Midland, Texas, joining one in central Alaska. Ultimately, the company aims to have a half dozen such sites.

“Commercial space in low-Earth orbit is growing so rapidly we really have to run quickly to keep up,” said Dan Ceperley, LeoLabs’ chief executive officer.

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