Montreal startup NorthStar wants to play traffic cop in space

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Last May, while examining high-resolution photographs as part of a routine inspection, the Canadian Space Agency spotted a five-millimetre hole in the Canadarm2, the robotic arm that services the International Space Station.

Space technology company MDA Ltd.

, which built the Canadarm2 at its facility in Brampton, Ont., was tasked by the CSA with reviewing the images and concluded that the arm had been hit by a piece of space debris.

Fortunately the arm’s performance was not affected – the space agency called it a “lucky strike” – but incidents such as this one are expected to become more common as the amount of debris orbiting the Earth continues to grow.

Orbital debris, also known as space junk, can be anything from a fully intact satellite that no longer works to fragments of an exploded rocket. There are roughly 23,000 pieces of debris larger than a softball orbiting the Earth at speeds of up 28,000 kilometres an hour – fast enough for even a small piece of debris to damage or even destroy a satellite or spacecraft, according to NASA.

A Montreal-based company that’s raised more than $80-million from some high profile investors thinks it has the solution.

“The more we use space, the more you can expect that debris will accumulate,” says Stewart Bain, the chief executive officer of space monitoring firm NorthStar Earth & Space Inc. “What you want to do is have a good idea, using technology, of where everything is, so you’re not operating blind.”

That’s where Skylark, NorthStar’s space-traffic-management constellation, comes in. Comprising 12 satellites outfitted with telescopes, Skylark will provide a much more comprehensive view compared with current ground-based monitoring systems. The company’s software algorithms, meanwhile, will be able to predict the trajectory of a piece of space debris, giving satellite operators more time to manoeuvre out of the way.