Small instruments on satellites will soon be able to detect pieces of space debris up to one inch in size that are invisible to existing space junk monitoring systems but can still destroy spacecraft if they hit it.
This is innovative space debris The tracking devices make use of technologies used in most satellites, called star trackers that help spacecraft maintain their orientation in space by adjusting their inclination according to the locations of the surrounding area. stars.
Star trackers are optical sensors that detect bright objects, stars and planets as they shine against the dark background of the universe. The satellite is programmed to know the location of those stars, so it can use those measurements to maintain its position and direction toward Earth. Sometimes other objects, such as satellites and bits of debris, pass into the startracker’s field of view. A new function being developed by the Belgian company Arcsec will allow these star trackers to discern the paths of these debris fragments, greatly enhancing our awareness of the amount and whereabouts of junk in Earth’s orbit.
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Space debris is a growing problem. In more than six decades of space exploration and use, humans have changed orbits Land to a giant garbage dump. Defunct satellites, used missile platforms, and the countless fragments created in collisions hurtle around the planet at dizzying speeds, threatening to destroy everything in its path.
According to the European Space Agency (European Space Agency), about 34,600 pieces of space debris are currently being tracked by ground-based radars. Most of these trackable objects are larger than 4 inches (10 cm). But in addition to those known fragments, scientists estimate that about a million pieces of space debris between 0.4 to 4 inches (1 to 10 cm) in size are orbiting Earth. Objects smaller than 0.4 inch are even more numerous: There may be more than 130 million of them, according to the European Space Agency.
Arcsec’s new space debris trackers will help map previously untrackable space junk fragments smaller than 4 inches (10 centimeters). The company says its sensors will detect waste as small as 1.2 inches (3 cm). Despite their small size, these objects can cause serious damage to operating satellites. In 2016, for example, a bullet-sized piece of space junk tore a hole 16 inches (40 cm) in diameter in A solar panel for the European Sentinel-1 Earth observation satellite. The satellite was able to continue its mission, however European Space Agency European Space Agency (ESA) engineers said that if that space bullet had hit the main body of the satellite, the mission would likely have been over.
To help start tracking these small fragments of space junk as soon as possible, Arcsec made it so that its remote debris tracking functionality could be added to the existing star trackers the company has built for spacecraft already in orbit.
“Our in-orbit startrackers can be upgraded, so already sold startrackers and even those currently in orbit can be augmented with a (debris tracking) solution,” an Arcsec spokesperson told Space.com. e-mail. “To date, Arcsec has already sold about 50 astral trackers to customers worldwide and the sales number is growing strongly. If we augment these astral trackers with a[debris tracking]solution, we will immediately create an impressive sensor network for spatial situational awareness.”
When the tracker detects an object that does not correspond to a star, its software flags it as a potential piece of debris. By analyzing several consecutive images, the system can calculate the trajectory of the object, which can then be used by space situational awareness companies to assess the risk of that part colliding with a working spacecraft. The brightness of the object helps the system evaluate the actual size of the fragment.
Arcsec, a subsidiary of the Catholic University of Leuven, Belgium, has been awarded a European grant to develop the sensor. An experimental satellite will be launched into space in early 2024. Data from the Orbital Debris Tracking Network will be available to providers of space situational awareness information as a paid service.