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ESA To Begin Space Junk Monitoring System

April 2, 2009

In response to more reports of dangerous space junk, the European Space Agency (ESA) on Thursday announced plans to begin a monitoring system for orbital space debris within the next few years.

“The goal is to be able to offer ‘precursor’ services in the next two or three years which among other things issue alerts about collision risks,” Nicolas Bobrinsky of ESA’s European Space Operations Centre in Darmstadt, told AFP.

“We already have the installations and a knowledge base which we have to bring together and use,” he said.

The announcement was made during the 5th European Conference on Space Debris, which began on Monday and ended today in Darmstadt.
An estimated 330 participants from 21 countries attended the conference, making it the largest dedicated space debris conference in the world, according to the ESA.

“Key areas were measurements and debris environment characterization, environment modeling and forecasting (including orbit prediction aspects), risk analysis for the in-orbit and re-entry mission phases, protection and shielding, debris mitigation and remediation, and debris policies and guidelines,” the agency said in a statement on its Web site.

The space junk is typically an accumulation of various pieces of decommissioned satellites. The pieces are typically small, but they pose a great risk of destroying manned missions.

During NASA’s Discovery shuttle mission to the International Space Station, crewmembers were forces to dodge space debris that was passing by at a distance that was too close for comfort on two occasions.

“We need to share more data,” said Thomas Schildknecht of the Aeronautical Institute of the University of Bern. “We consider this most import and challenging part for the immediate future.”

The United States tracks the threat of space junk with ground-based radar, which it claims is accurate within 325 feet.

The junk publicly catalogued by the United States is larger than five centimeters (two inches), “but they can probably do much more,” said Heiner Klinkrad, ESA’s top debris expert, who chaired the Darmstadt conference.

“They can probably track one-centimeter (0.4-inch) objects, which is the shielding limit” for protecting spacecraft against impact, he told AFP.

Researchers have been testing facilities including a radar at Wachtberg, in northwestern Germany, a 100-metre radiotelescope at Effelsberg, western Germany, and a network of radar stations, called Eiscat, in Finland, Norway and Sweden.

“With those facilities, we could detect objects with a diameter of one centimeter (0.4 inches) and we could track (objects of) four centimeters (2.5 inches),” said Klinkrad.

He added that the monitoring system was still in early stages of planning, and ESA is determining whether or not commercial firms would be interested in working on the project.

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Image Credit:www.academics.uww.edu.

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