The new method of tracking space junk involves using high-powered lasers that detect diffused reflections bouncing back from the debris orbiting up to 36,000 kilometers away. (Image credit: NASA)


There’s a good chance that no matter where you are on the planet, there will be a piece of garbage nearby. On the top of Mount Everest, deserted islands, the North and South Poles, even in the most desolate of places, there is always a piece of refuse not far away. The same is true in space, in both low and high orbits, only debris traveling at 27,000 mph around the planet can be deadly and costly. Scientists have been tracking portions of floating garbage for decades, which range in size from small screws to discarded rocket stages.


Lasers have been deployed on the ground to track objects in space, but ranging the debris was only possible for a few short hours during twilight, as the sunlight made it virtually impossible. Now, scientists from the Austrian Academy of Sciences Space Research Institute have developed a new technique of detection that can be used during daytime hours, significantly expanding the amount of time floating junk can be tracked. It may even pave the way for visualizing and mapping the debris in each orbital range.


The scientists developed the new technique by calibrating their telescopes using two stars with different levels of brightness, which allowed them to increase the visibility of debris in orbit. Once the calibrations were complete, they then started tracking objects beginning above 150 in incremental elevations, adjusting for the amount of light as they went. They then used a computer program to detect illuminated objects from different light sources, which also takes into account daylight interference.


The scientists had to continuously apply corrections to the images, based on the target’s predicted flight paths and TOF (Time of Flight). Using the software, they needed to apply time biases repeatedly, center their SLR (Satellite Laser Ranging) telescopes, and shift the detection time. The new technique produced four successful trials, with each tracking a piece of old Soviet-era rockets between March and October of last year. The new detection method could also provide additional information about targets, including their rotational behavior, direction, and period.    


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