You may not see it when you look into the night sky, but right now there is a lot of land orbiting the Earth. Satellite fragments no longer exist, rocket layers removed and other man-made debris surround our planet like a giant bubble of trash. Tracking the position of these objects is essential for the safety of satellites in service as well as for crew missions and even the dangers they pose to the International Space Station. .
According to a report by the MIT Technology Review, a new technique for tracking debris is providing the ability to detect space junk in daylight, rather than for small amounts of time as was previously the case.
Firing a laser into space is one way that scientists track space debris. When a laser hits an object, it bounces back and scientists can detect that reaction and keep a record of the trash when they find it. Unfortunately, this technique does not provide much in terms of accuracy and it is very difficult to accurately locate objects based solely on laser reaction.
To enhance the effectiveness of the laser method, scientists look at the sky with lenses designed to detect the sunlight reflection of objects. However, this can only be done at dawn or dusk, as daylight obscures the imaging equipment and prevents easy detection and tracking.
In a new paper published in Nature Communications, the researchers explain how they have devised a new way to track space junk in daylight. They built a special imaging system with filters that allowed them to see stars in the blue sky. That̵7;s an achievement on its own, but this also allows for the comparison of reflections from space debris to the background stars, since these debris are significantly brighter in the sky.
The researchers say of their new system: “Space debris objects are visualized against a blue sky and deviations are corrected in real time. “The results are the starting point for all space debris laser-emitting stations to dramatically increase their output in the near future. A network of several stations around the world would be able to significantly improve trajectory prediction when needed for elimination, combination warning, avoidance drills, or attitudes. “
Tracking space debris will become more and more important as we continue to explore our Solar System with probes and even manned missions. Navigating between all the trash we’ve thrown into space is going to be harder than ever, but systems like this might make things a little easier.