Drive to Discover a solution to space junk

February 21, 2011 9:33:37 AM PST
To meet the threat of space debris in orbit to humans and to satellites, experts are enlisting supercomputers and even launching "traffic cams" into orbit.

Richard Hart reports on the Drive to Discover a solution to space junk.

An animation shows the collision of a U.S. communications satellite and a Russian military satellite. The Russian Cosmos was no longer operational in 2009, but the American Iridium was. This simulation, crucial to understanding the consequences of the space debris, was not easy. It took hours, even on a high-performance computer.

"And, if you look at the statistics," says John Henderson, "You would expect to have a significant collision about every two years."

Henderson is Associate Program Leader for Space Systems and Global Security at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory.

"And, that was two years ago! So, it's kind of like earthquake prediction, where you can say, 'OK, we're predicting somewhere in this window, there's going to be an earthquake.' But, you don't know exactly," he explains.

There are now nearly 200,000 objects in orbit. 20,000 of them are longer than 4 inches, double the number just 10 years ago. The ones in the lab's animation are magnified up to 20 times to make them easier for the human eye to appreciate, yet only a few hundred satellites have been tracked for years, because of a huge uncertainly in orbital data. To reduce that uncertainty, Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory has enlisted its supercomputer expertise for a major advance.

"The current system takes hours to go through and calculate the conjunctions of satellites and debris," Henderson says. "And, with the supercomputers and the new algorithms we've developed, that's something that we can do in minutes."

In addition, the lab is working with Texas A&M and the Naval Postgraduate School to launch two cubesats, satellites 4 inches by 4 inches by 10 inches, with optical telescopes.

"We can use these Pathfinder satellites to look at our satellites and debris, refine the orbital information, and, if you will, generate collision warnings," Henderson says.

It's essentially a traffic cam in space. That will go up in a few months. The new computer tracking knowledge is being transferred right now to satellite tracking agencies.


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