US, Australia Building System to Track Space Junk

Tuesday, 26 Aug 2014 10:12 AM

By Andrea Billups

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The amount of space junk floating through the atmosphere has prompted U.S. and Australian companies to join forces to build a new system that can detect debris the size of a baseball, The Wall Street Journal reports.

The tracking station, built by Lockheed Martin and the Canberra-based Electra Optic Systems Holdings, will be located in the Australian Outback.

Building upon technology that has been utilized by the military in Iraq and Afghanistan, the tracking system can detect debris moving at speeds as fast as 17,500 mph.

"There are up to 200 threats a day identified for orbiting satellites," Lockheed Martin spokesman Trevor Thomas told the Journal. "Most satellites can sustain some damage, but little bits of junk hit satellites every day, and each [satellite] on average is worth around U.S. $500 million."

The U.S. Space Surveillance Network tracks space debris. It is a growing problem that can cause major damage to satellites, the Journal added, noting there have been at least 21,000 pieces with a radius the size of a bowling ball floating in space. Even the smallest pieces can cause major damage, and astronauts in the International Space Station have had to shelter in "lifeboats" fearing a direct hit that could render their craft useless, not unlike the frightening scenes depicted in the recent space film "Gravity."

The new tracking system will use optic technology to locate moving debris and then employ lasers to measure speed and distance. "It's like a giant version of a hand-held laser-ranging system," Craig Smith, chief executive of space systems at EOS, told the Journal, comparing the capabilities to devices "used by everyone from keen golfers to soldiers."

It is badly needed.

"Space debris is a serious environmental threat. The consequences of collisions between satellites may be unacceptable. We must mitigate low-probability, high-consequence events," Dave Finkleman wrote in a column in Space News outlining the issue.

An international committee of 77 nations representing the United Nations' Committee on the Peaceful Uses of Outer Space, set voluntary debris migration standards in 2002, Space News reported, noting the ongoing difficulty of achieving consensus on the problem, as not all satellites create the same collision risk.

In addition to the Outback monitoring system, engineers at the Russian space agency are working on another solution, developing a terrestrial "scavenger" to sweep out floating debris by 2025, reported.

The $297 million project would be designed to "clean circumterrestrial space of disabled communication satellites and upper-stage rockets currently cluttering up the geostationary orbit," RT noted of the overcrowding.

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