Using Talk Radio To Track Space Debris
December 2, 2013

Using Talk Radio To Track Space Debris

[ Watch the Video: Listening Up For Space Debris ]

Lee Rannals for - Your Universe Online

Top-40 mixes being played over the FM airwaves are helping scientists locate space junk orbiting around our planet. Australian astronomers are using pop songs, talk radio and the Murchison Widefield Array (MWA) to help prevent catastrophic space junk collisions. As radio waves bounce around, they deflect off thousands of objects orbiting the Earth, which the team is able to take advantage of to help track debris.

Researchers have already begun tracking radio waves from FM transmitters located near Perth and Geraldton that bounce off the International Space Station (ISS). Professor Steven Tingay, director of the MWA at Curtin University and team leader of the study, said that MWA will be able to detect the space junk by listening in on the radio signals generated by stations.

"We have shown that we are able to detect approximately 10 pieces of space junk simultaneously. Over time this means we are in a position to monitor a significant fraction of the space junk that is in Earth orbits," Tingay said.

He said that the importance of this study is that space debris is unpredictable and poses a significant threat to space infrastructure, such as communication satellites.

"An early warning system has the potential to protect the billions of dollars' worth of vital infrastructure orbiting the earth but also prevent collisions that will result in even more space debris being generated, such as what happened in the case of the Iridium 33 satellite in 2009," he said.

Ben McKinley, a CAASTRO PhD student at The Australian National University, was the first to come up with the idea to use MWA to track space debris. He was able to image the moon using reflected FM signals, and he calculated the probability that alien civilizations were listening in on Earth radio waves.

"CAASTRO's emphasis on all-sky astronomy naturally leads to this new capability with the MWA, showing that astrophysics research can cross over into having significant benefits for people in everyday life," Professor Tingay concluded.

The latest study doesn’t just have implications for lowering the threat of space debris - it also confirms the $51-million MWA as a revolutionary astronomy tool.

"The MWA was designed to be the most powerful low frequency radio telescope in the Southern Hemisphere and this was our chance to test its capabilities," Tingay explained. "Prior to undertaking the study we had calculated how strong we expected the signals to be using simulations and theory. The measurements we took as part of the study were spot on in agreement with our calculations.”

He added that this study has had excellent results and bodes well for the other MWA science projects that are underway.