Atmospheric debris wasn’t only a threat in the film “Gravity,” in which stray technology destroyed the Hubble Space Telescope and the shuttle and killed crew members.
Space junk is also a problem for the nation’s multimillion-dollar communications and weather satellites, and billion-dollar space missions. Along with concerns over a chain reaction from collisions, it has pushed University at Buffalo researcher John L. Crassidis to play a key role in tracking the thousands of man-made objects that orbit Earth.
A current project he’s involved with that is funded by the U.S. Air Force is expected to launch a satellite to better track space objects in the next two years.
“We are increasingly reliant on satellites for a number of important things in our everyday lives, such as weather prediction, navigation and communications,” Crassidis said. “However, even a tiny piece of space junk the size of a golf ball can destroy a multimillion-dollar satellite and create yet more space junk in the process.”
Last year, debris destroyed a Russian communications satellite, producing about 2,000 pieces of space junk. The satellite-destroying debris came from the Chinese, who used an anti-satellite missile in 2007 to blow up one of their own satellites.
In 2009, an American communications satellite hit a Russian satellite nearly 500 miles above Siberia, propelling hundreds of fragments into space.
Crassidis, who teaches mechanical and aerospace engineering, has worked with NASA, the Department of Defense and other agencies. His efforts received a boost from Cheektowaga-based research and development firm CUBRC, which will be providing $250,000 over the next five years to support his efforts. The funds also will be used to create a named UB chair, the CUBRC Professor in Space Situational Awareness.
Crassidis said it was presumed a few decades ago that space was big enough to absorb technological debris without much concern. But he said that’s no longer the case, especially as the number of objects hurtling 17,500 miles per hour through space increase, including ones still too small to be tracked.
Adding to the concern is the “Kessler Syndrome” – named for former NASA astrophysicist Donald Kessler – who in 1978 proposed the idea that a runaway number of collisions could create a multiplier effect.
With more and more data, Crassidis said it’s necessary to build a sophisticated computer to track the space objects.
“It’s just too much data to handle for a human. Right now, we track about 21,000 objects down to about a softball size. If we go down to a golf ball size – which we may be able to do with new sensors – we’re talking about the possibility of hundreds of thousands of objects, and that’s a lot to keep track of.”
Crassidis said ideas on how to remove debris from space have been floated, but it’s still just idle talk.
“People have thought of ways to get rid of it, but unfortunately, no one has a great solution yet,” he said.