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Space junk colliding makes ‘signals’ we can detect here on Earth | Technology News

When pieces of space debris collide, they send out electric signals that can help track small debris littering our planet’s orbit and potentially helping scientists save both satellites and spacecraft.

The University of Michigan researchers are proposing a new approach that could help satellite and spacecraft operators detect small pieces of debris orbiting Earth.

“Right now, we detect space debris by looking for objects that reflect light or radar signals. The smaller the objects get, the harder it becomes to get sunlight or radar signals strong enough to detect them from the ground,” said Nilton Renno, the principal investigator from the university team and a professor of climate and space sciences and engineering and aerospace engineering.

Currently, we are only able to track objects much larger than a cricket ball, which is less than one per cent of the estimated 170 million pieces of trash that is leftover from old satellites, rocket launches and spacewalk. The researchers claim the new method can detect debris smaller than one millimetre in diameter.

Trash in space is a danger. At typical orbits speeds of around 35,000 kilometres per hour, a piece of space debris the size of a plum will have momentum similar to a highway car crash. A small piece of debris like that can destroy satellites. In fact, even smaller pieces can damage spacecraft.

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Pieces of debris often collide with each other which is a problem because they then fragment into smaller and smaller pieces. These collisions can be disastrous but they can also help give a way to track space junk. When debris collides and fragments into smaller pieces, some of it can vapourise into a charged gas because of the heat from the impact.

That would create lightning-like energy bursts. According to the team’s most recent simulations, when two pieces of aluminum collide at typical orbital speeds, they emit an electrical burst strong enough for a 26-meter dish with a high-quality radio receiver to detect from the ground.

The electric fields from the impact should be detectable by fairly sensitive ground telescopes.

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