The innovative method proposed by researchers from the University of Michigan to detect smaller space debris is currently undetectable. The research results are part of a larger project, the Intelligence Advanced Research Projects Activity’s Space Debris Identification and Tracking Program.
Researchers from the University of Michigan have proposed an innovative method for detecting small pieces of debris orbiting the Earth, which are currently undetectable. “Right now, we detect space debris by looking for objects that reflect light or radar signals,” said Nilton Renno, a climate and space sciences professor and engineering and aerospace engineering at the University. He added that this becomes challenging as the size of the objects decreases, making it difficult to get sunlight or radar signals strong enough to detect them from the ground.
“We want to know if an object is hard or soft because that will impact how it orbits and how damaging it can be,” said Mojtaba Akhavan-Tafti.
Currently, objects more significant than a softball are the only trackable pieces of this “space junk,” less than 1% of the nearly 170 million pieces of trash leftover from rocket launches, spacewalks, and defunct satellites. The new method, however, would enable the detection of debris smaller than one millimeter in diameter—similar to the thickness of pencil lead. These findings are among the first to emerge from a larger, collaborative project, the Intelligence Advanced Research Projects Activity’s Space Debris Identification and Tracking Program.
The Danger of Space Debris
Space trash isn’t just unsightly—it’s hazardous. At a typical orbital speed of 22,000 miles per hour, a plum-sized piece of space debris can hit another object with the same energy as a car crash on the highway. Even smaller objects can cause damage to spacecraft, making they’re tracking a mission-critical task. The cluttering of Earth’s orbit with space debris poses a significant challenge in protecting satellites.
The Approach: Collisions as a Means of Detection
According to the researchers, collisions between space debris could be the best way to track tiny space junk. When small pieces of space debris collide, they create a cloud of charged gas and debris fragments that expand to create lightning-like energy bursts. These electric signals could help track pieces of space debris and clouds of microscopic fragments that form when debris collides.
The team plans to refine their approach through additional computer simulations, accurate signal measurements with NASA’s Deep Space Network, and data analysis from hypervelocity experiments at the Naval Research Laboratory and NASA’s Ames Research Center. If these experiments reveal a way to detect a wide range of electrical signals generated during space debris collisions, they could determine where space debris looks and what it is made of.
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