Space lasers protecting the final frontier

Firing lasers into space sounds like something straight out of science fiction, but scientists use lasers every day for locating objects in space, measuring tectonic plate movement and tracking space junk. Space junk is this year's hot topic; around 170 million pieces of man-made space debris ranging from the size of a bus to small flakes of paint are clogging up space around the Earth. Travelling at high speed, this debris endangers space services every day, threatening GPS, communication systems and atmospheric monitoring, not to mention astronauts and spacecraft. The Space Environment Research Centre (SERC) will host two international forums on these topics in Canberra during the week of 05 November 2018. These forums, the International Workshop on Laser Ranging 2018 (IWLR 2018) and the International Workshop on Space Debris Management and Mitigation, will feature experts from all over the world discussing these issues. IWRL2018 is being conducted in conjunction with the International Laser Ranging Service (ILRS). International Keynote speakers at the forums include:

  • Dr Ben Greene is Group CEO of Electro Optic Systems, Director of the Space Environment Research Centre (SERC) and Chair of the SERC Research Management Committee

  • Professor Thomas Herring is a Professor of Geophysics in the Department of Earth Atmospheric and Planetary Sciences, Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), Cambridge.

  • Associate Professor Moriba Jah is from the University of Texas at Austin and an independent member of the SERC Research Management Committee.

The ILRS is an international network of optical observatories (telescopes) which use ground based lasers to accurately measure the distance between the earth and satellites and the distance between the earth and the moon. Data collected by the ILRS is used to support activities such as measuring sea level rising, movements in tectonic plates (changes in the shape of the earth), accurate global positioning (GPS) and scientific research.

Australia’s satellite laser ranging facilities are located in Yarragadee, Western Australia (operated by Geoscience Australia) and Mount Stromlo, ACT. The Mount Stromlo facility is operated by EOS Space Systems (EOSSS) on behalf of Geoscience Australia.

IWLR 2018 is a major draw card for space professionals from around the globe. In attendance at the 21st meeting of this illustrious group will be representatives from international space agencies, optical observatories and space industry professionals will attend IWLR 2018 and the International Workshop on Space Debris Management and Mitigation. A snapshot of registered delegates includes: NASA (Goddard and JPL), the Japanese Space Agency (JAXA), the German Space Agency (DLR), the European Space Agency (ESA), the Korean Space Agency (KASI), National Information Communication Technology Japan (NICT), the Chinese and Austrian Academy of Sciences, Indian Space Research Organisation and the Russian Scientific Research Institute for Physical Engineering and Radiotechnical Metrology.

The International Workshop on Space Debris Management and Mitigation brings together researchers and space professions from around the world to collaborate on the space debris issue. Delegates will share research and discuss new technologies that have been developed to track and manage the millions of pieces of man-made space debris endangering access to space and space-based services.

Around USD$700 billion worth of global space infrastructure is currently at risk from collisions with an ever increasing amount of space debris. Globally, space infrastructure delivers essential and highly efficient services including communications, navigation, resource management and climate change monitoring. This infrastructure is at risk from space debris ranging in size from spent rocket stages as large as buses, to flakes of paint measuring only 5mm. This debris travels at speeds in excess of 8 km per second, so even very small objects can badly damage or destroy satellites.

SERC Chief Executive Officer, David Ball believes international collaboration is essential for a global problem like space debris. The space industry is rapidly changing with many more launches scheduled or taking place. These launches range in scope from dozens of small CubeSats launched from the International Space Station through to mega-constellations of low earth orbit. The mega-constellations alone could see more than 18,000 new satellites launched in the coming years; ten times more satellites than currently in operation. This significant increase in the population of operational satellites necessitates urgent action by industry to improve space situational awareness (SSA) and establish an international space traffic management (STM) system.

The scientific advances made by SERC contribute significantly to SSA and STM by improving the accuracy of tracking objects in space, predicting their orbits and improving space object management capabilities.

“SERC’s research is advancing the scientific understanding of the behaviour of objects in space so that the forecasting of orbit changes over time can be done with greater accuracy. This will in turn result in improved SSA for satellite operators and provide warnings of potential collisions between operational satellites or between operational satellites and space debris.” Mr Ball said.

Working at SERC’s $20 million research facility, SERC researchers are tackling the problem by enhancing capability in tracking, characterising and identifying objects in orbit, orbit determination and predicting behaviours of space objects. Photon pressure from lasers can be used to move debris objects in space. SERC’s aim is to reduce the rate of debris proliferation caused by new collisions, and to subsequently demonstrate the potential of ground-based lasers to be used for the cost effective manoeuvre of space debris objects so that collisions can be prevented.


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