NEW MEXICO (KRQE) – Space is a treacherous place for both astronauts and the expensive equipment they use for communication and exploration. As commercial space travel puts more people into orbit, this new generation of explorers needs more solutions to keep them safe. As part of KRQE News 13’s original series, New Mexico Frontiers, Chad Brummett looked into how the groups in NewSpace Nexus’s Ignitor Program are keeping space exploration safe.

This month, Virgin Galactic blasted the first crew of tourists into lower Earth orbit, christening a new dawn for how humans interact with the final frontier. Yet, miles above the orbiter is a field of thousands of missiles – some the size of school busses and some no bigger than a bold – all of which are traveling at nearly 17,000 miles per hour.

Since Sputnik was launched into space in 1957, mankind has been steadily contributing to a cloud of debris with every mission into space. According to NASA, more than 27,000 pieces of debris are tracked by the Department of Defense (DOD). Most of the tracked objects are larger than a briefcase; however, there are thousands of smaller, untracked objects that could carry big consequences if they hit a spacecraft carrying people.

Troy Morris is the co-founder and director of operations for Kall Morris Incorporated (KMI). The company is a member of NewSpace Nexus’s Ignitor Program, which helps connect space industry innovators with resources, funding, and collaborators to find solutions to complicated problems – like space debris. KMI is developing hardware and software that can guide potentially hazardous objects to a safer orbit. The technology can also bring the hazards out of orbit altogether.

In 2009, a deactivated Russian satellite slammed into an active satellite at 26,000 miles an hour. The collision produced around 2,000 new pieces of debris, causing the international space station to perform evasive maneuvers to avoid its own impact in 2011.

“Humanity has done a great job of launching enough things into orbit that if there were no more launches – private, public, government, or otherwise – the amount of debris objects that are colliding right now overhead are going to increase in quantity. And it becomes harder and harder to clean up,” says Morris.

The problem with space debris is not just the junk in orbit around our planet. Within the debris field could be objects with a hidden agenda – objects that could be spying on us as we speak. Stacy Jones is the founder of O Analytics, a company taking the problem of space debris one step further. O Analytics is using algorithms to determine if any of the debris in orbit is actually on a mission.

“It doesn’t necessarily have to be a threat. It could be something that you perceive to be friendly, but we need to keep an eye on it. So when we look at the pattern of behavior and look at anomalies – observing whether a particular object is, let’s say, hovering – if it hovers for a while, that could be a concern from an intelligence perspective,” says Jones.

As a NewSpace Nexus Ignitor Elite group, O Analytics is working on potential contracts with the Department of Defense. The business is also working on developing relationships with potential investors and companies that may not have been available without the help of New Mexico non-profit NewSpace Nexus.

As the dawn of commercial space exploration emerges, the collaboration of different minds will be critical in achieving safety and success for humanity’s next chapter in space. KMI and O Analytics are two of the Elite Igitor companies within the NewSpace Nexus program. Currently, there are 24 companies at different levels of engagement with the New Mexico non-profit.