What goes up doesn't come down: Tracking space junk from WA

November 26, 2018, Particle
What goes up doesn’t come down: tracking space junk from WA
Space junk: another bit of science Disney got right. Credit: DISNEY/PIXAR

Space. The very word speaks of emptiness and isolation. But since we discovered how useful it is to put things up there, space has been getting a little bit crowded.

We've been putting stuff in space for over 60 years now. Without air resistance to slow it down, it tends to stay up there—even if it's not meant to.

The above our planet is slowly filling with dead satellites, rocket parts, nuts and bolts and even chips of paint, all moving at thousands of kilometres an hour. At those speeds, even the tiniest collision can cause massive damage, and the more there is, the harder it is to dodge.

But not only are there no bringing them down—there are no human laws about them either.

"It's a classic tragedy of the commons," says Anthony Wicht, space expert at United States Studies Centre. "But unlike deforestation or overfishing, nobody can see it."

So what can we do about it?

The best we can do at the moment is get a better idea of exactly what's up there and where it is. If we know where debris is, we can steer satellites out of the way. It's only when we lose track of things that they become a risk.

Learning how to track is a growing field called 'space ', and WA is getting pretty good at it.

Mapping the distribution and movement of men-made objects around the Earth can help us steer satellites out of the way. Credit: NASA

Not only do we host part of the Falcon Telescope Network and some super-secret USAF/NASA radar sites, our homegrown Desert Fireball Network has become an unexpectedly important player as well.

The Desert Fireball Network is made up of 52 automated cameras spread across the country. They're designed to track meteors entering Earth's atmosphere, with help from citizen scientists. But that's not all they've been tracking.

"We realised early on that we weren't just seeing meteorites," says Renae Sayers, Research Ambassador for Curtin University. "We were picking up other moving objects in the sky as well."

Using images from the cameras and a little bit of maths, the Desert Fireball Network team built up a stunningly accurate map of all the stuff up in orbit around the Earth.

"We have so many sensors that you see the same object every couple of hours," Renae says. "There's no need to do any fancy orbit calculations if you never lose an object in the first place."

"[The map] ended up being accurate down to about one pixel. If the object was more than a pixel out of place, we knew that its orbit had changed," says Professor Phil Bland, project lead.

New technologies are being tested to remove space debris entirely. Credit: ASTROSCALE

They're now working with aerospace company Lockheed Martin to roll the mapping system out across the world.

"It's a great example of how blue-sky space science projects can rapidly translate into real benefits for Australian space industries and defence," Professor Bland says.

Be aware and take care

Situational awareness lets us avoid collisions and move satellites out of the way. In the future, it might be possible to remove space debris entirely. We might use the satellite equivalent of a rubbish truck or shoot it down with a laser from Earth.

Until then though, the best we can do is keep track of the problem—and remember to clean up after ourselves in space, just like we do here on Earth.

Explore further: SpaceX gets nod to put 12,000 satellites in orbit

Related Stories

SpaceX gets nod to put 12,000 satellites in orbit

November 16, 2018

SpaceX got the green light this week from US authorities to put a constellation of nearly 12,000 satellites into orbit in order to boost cheap, wireless internet access by the 2020s.

Video: Net successfully snares space debris

September 19, 2018

The RemoveDEBRIS satellite has successfully used its on-board net technology in orbit – the first demonstration in human history of active debris removal (ADR) technology.

Space junk could destroy satellites, hurt economies

May 31, 2017

The growing amount of fast-moving space debris orbiting the Earth could lead to catastrophic collisions with satellites, hurting economies, researchers warned Wednesday ahead of a summit to coordinate efforts to remove the ...

Meteorite search about to begin

October 6, 2015

Geological relics from the far reaches of the solar system are the focus of a quest by the fireball hunting team at Curtin University.

Recommended for you

Fish-inspired material changes color using nanocolumns

March 20, 2019

Inspired by the flashing colors of the neon tetra fish, researchers have developed a technique for changing the color of a material by manipulating the orientation of nanostructured columns in the material.

Researchers shed new light on the origins of modern humans

March 20, 2019

Researchers from the University of Huddersfield, with colleagues from the University of Cambridge and the University of Minho in Braga, have been using a genetic approach to tackle one of the most intractable questions of ...

One transistor for all purposes

March 20, 2019

In mobiles, fridges, planes – transistors are everywhere. But they often operate only within a restricted current range. LMU physicists have now developed an organic transistor that functions perfectly under both low and ...

1 comment

Adjust slider to filter visible comments by rank

Display comments: newest first

5 / 5 (1) Nov 27, 2018
"But not only are there no laws of physics bringing them down—"

So...gravity can tear apart an orbiting moon, but isn't strong enough to bring down satellites. Yeah...that's how it works

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.