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Space Junk

The Space Surveillance Telescope (SST) is designed to track space debris and small objects

In order to dodge something, you need to see it. If that something is space debris then sometimes the best thing to use is an old-fashioned telescope – or, in the case of the US Department of Defense, a state-of-the-art telescope capable of searching an area larger than the United States in seconds. That’s why DARPA is preparing to deliver the new Space Surveillance Telescope (SST) to Western Australia, where it will help track small satellites and space debris orbiting the Earth when it becomes operational in 2016.  Read More

Artist's concept of CleanSpace One approaching a satellite (Image: EPFL)

Back in the 1970s, there was a short-lived sitcom called Quark about an outer space rubbish collector. What was played for laughs back then may soon be a reality with the announcement that Ecole polytechnique federale de Lausanne (EPFL) and Swiss Space Systems (S3) have formed a partnership to launch the CleanSpace One satellite into orbit to collect space debris using a launch system that promises to be cheaper than using conventional techniques.  Read More

The Fermi Gamma-ray Space Telescope has a near-collision with Cosmos 1805

Julie McEnery is NASA's Project Scientist for the Fermi Gamma-ray Space Telescope. When she checked her email on March 29, 2012, she was startled to find an automatically generated message stating that in six days, her half-billion-plus dollar satellite was going to cross paths with Cosmos 1805, a Soviet-era spy satellite. The predicted encounter had the two satellites occupying the same coordinates only 30 milliseconds apart. Not only that, but Cosmos was in an orbit moving nearly perpendicular to Fermi such that their collision would be equivalent to tons of high explosives. Essentially total destruction.  Read More

An illustration depicting the amount of debris currently orbiting the earth (Image: NASA)

In response to the rapidly increasing danger from space debris, a new system called the "Space Fence" has been under development. It would replace the 50-year-old Air Force Space Surveillance System (AFSSS) with a system of highly-sensitive phased array S-band tracking radars. Prototype "Space Fence" systems able to detect and track objects ten times smaller than those that can be detected by the AFSSS have been demonstrated by Raytheon and by Lockheed Martin. The USAF will now choose between construction and installation proposals submitted from both companies for building the new US$3.3 billion (est.) Space Fence, to be operational by 2017.  Read More

Representation of a satellite being destroyed by collision with orbital debris (Image: ESA...

Orbital debris is (nearly) forever, and threatens to render near-Earth space unusable, and all but impassible. The 2007 Chinese anti-satellite test and an accidental collision between two communications satellites in 2009 highlighted the need to study orbital collisions of modern satellites. The NASA Standard Breakup Model, based on hypervelocity collision studies of 1960s-era satellites, fails to accurately describe collisions of modern satellites, owing to advances made in materials and construction. To address this problem, NASA is updating the SBM by building and destroying a modern dummy satellite called DebriSat.  Read More

A rendering of the debris cloud surrounding the earth (Image: NASA)

Boeing has filed a patent for a method of disposing of dead satellites and other debris orbiting the earth by hitting them with a puff of gas. The method, which is still at the conceptual stage, is designed to slow down satellites, forcing them to re-enter the atmosphere without sending up more space junk that itself will need disposing of.  Read More

The different components that make up the MIT microthruster (Photo: MIT)

Small-scale satellites show a lot promise, but unless they have equally small-scale thrusters they’re pretty limited in what they can do. Unfortunately conventional thrusters are heavy and take up a lot of valuable space, but a penny-sized rocket engine developed at MIT holds the prospect of not only increasing the capabilities of miniature satellites, but of combating space junk as well.  Read More

A depiction of CleanSpace One, closing in on an expired picosatellite

NASA currently monitors approximately 17,000 pieces of space junk that are orbiting the earth at extremely high speeds. These odds and ends consist of things like dead satellites, spent rocket stages and parts that have broken off of spacecraft. As the amount of junk increases, it becomes increasingly difficult for functioning satellites to avoid colliding with it. When collisions do occur, the satellite is often destroyed, with the resulting debris further adding to the problem. Scientists from Swiss research institute EPFL, however, have decided that enough is enough – they’re currently developing a small satellite known as CleanSpace One, which will be tasked with grappling expired satellites and pulling them back to Earth.  Read More

The US$750 million UARS satellite is the largest NASA satellite to make an uncontrolled di...

If you've been looking to the skies in the hope of catching a glimpse of the doomed UARS satellite before it plummeted to the Earth's surface ... you missed it. NASA is now reporting that the decommissioned satellite fell back to Earth sometime between 11:23 p.m. EDT Friday, Sept. 23 and 1:09 a.m. EDT Sept. 24, making its final dive eastwards over Canada, Africa and finally crashing in the Pacific Ocean. The exact location of the crash has not been officially determined but there are reports that some debris made landfall near Calgary in Canada. NASA says that it is not aware of any reports of injury or property damage.  Read More

The Space Fence will detect the hundreds of thousands of pieces of space debris orbiting t...

The U.S. Air Force’s Space Fence program has entered its next phase with the three companies originally awarded US$30 million contracts to develop a Space Fence now cut back to two. Northrop Grumman is now out of the project, leaving Lockheed Martin and Raytheon, which have each been awarded a US$107 million dollar follow-on contract to further develop and prototype their systems in preparation for a final Space Fence production contract next year. As might be easy to misconstrue from its name, the Space Fence isn’t designed as a defense against intergalactic interlopers, but is intended to detect and track the increasing amount of space junk orbiting Earth.  Read More

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