Researchers develop new methods of garbage collection

Researchers develop new methods of garbage collection

Australian researchers have looked at clearing the junkyard of outer space orbiting Earth to avoid a collision chain reaction of self-sustaining debris, using lasers and artificial intelligence technology.

Space debris expert Don Kessler, of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), was reported by The Age as the first to note that space is at risk of becoming inaccessible to Earth. Kessler observed that once the amount of space debris in orbit reaches a critical point, collisions will inevitably occur. These collisions will result in more debris, which will create a chain reaction of cascading collisions that cannot be avoided; this phenomenon is called Kessler Syndrome.

Since the 1950s, thousands of rockets, satellites and assorted objects have been sent into space, and the number is growing exponentially. This year alone, SpaceX set the record for the number of satellites sent into space on a rocket, delivering 143 satellites into space on the Falcon 9.

The US Department of Defense and NASA have estimated that there are currently around 23,000 pieces of space debris larger than a softball in Earth’s orbit. This debris is joined by half a million debris the size of a marble or larger and about 100 million pieces one millimeter (about 0.04 inch) or larger.

However, because the world depends on satellite technology for navigation, weather forecasting and communication, governments and agencies cannot stop sending satellites into orbit.

NASA crash investigators place debris from the Space Shuttle Columbia in a grid on the floor of a hangar March 4, 2003 at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida. (NASA/Getty Images)

Many scientists are working on the identification and collection of space debris in Earth orbit, some are using nautical techniques such as nets and harpoons to fish out the largest pieces of debris. However, much of the junk is difficult for astronomers to perceive because Earth has what scientists call a bright atmosphere that can hide particularly small pieces of debris.

“The ‘glow’ of the atmosphere is caused by turbulence or fluctuations in the air above us,” said Sara Webb, a postdoctoral researcher at Swinburne University of Technology, in an email to The Epoch Times.

“Our atmosphere is thick and always in motion due to the physics of heat and gases. It’s what makes stars shine, that light refracts and reflects in different directions all the time.”

Overcoming the atmosphere with lasers

To counteract the bright atmosphere, scientists use Electro Optic Systems (EOS) technology, which uses a laser attached to a telescope on Mount Stromlo in Canberra, Australia, to shoot laser light into the sky. The bright action of the atmosphere distorts the laser light and allows astronomers a chance to “see” the smallest space junk.

“You can think of adaptive optics as trying to mimic the movements of the air above us in the mirror that reflects the light,” Webb said.

“We’re trying to correct some of the refraction to sharpen and focus the light that goes through the atmosphere.”

“By improving something we call ‘the view,’ we can resolve smaller objects like space debris. Otherwise, they would be too faint and their light too scattered for us to identify,” he said.

Refined perception of these objects allows Australian astronomers to guide satellites, astronauts and spacecraft from both government and private agencies away from the debris.

Another approach to removing smaller pieces of junk is to shoot a high-powered laser into the atmosphere. The laser pressure forces the space junk down its orbit to Earth, where it is then safely burned up as it enters the upper atmosphere.

“This is something called a ‘laser sweep’ and it can remove space debris. This means helping it lose/shred material and in doing so force the material away from the object impart a little nudge,” Webb said.

“It helps the debris slow down enough to fall further to the ground and burn up on its way in.”

Australia plays an integral role in the collection of space junk, as they have space technologies that few countries in the southern hemisphere possess to monitor the vast sky.

quantum computing A laser tests the optical waveguide of a chip for quantum computing in a laboratory in Stuttgart, Germany on September 14, 2021. (Thomas Kienzle/AFP via Getty Images)

Artificial intelligence could provide better guidance through space

However, given the increasing amount of debris and satellites in space, relying on human guidance could lead to problems as errors can occur. So scientists posit that artificial intelligence (AI) guidance systems might be a better approach.

A new range of smarter satellites that are guided by AI scientists argue that it could avoid space junk without human intervention, while still remaining complete and functional. However, the risk with AI is that the guided satellites will not be able to communicate with each other and could therefore trigger the cascading collisions that people are trying to avoid.

If one satellite moves into the path of a second satellite to avoid debris, the second satellite can move into the path of a third, and so on.

A partnership project called “Responsible AI in Space” has been launched to set an industry standard for AI satellites in outer-world applications. The establishment of an industry standard aims to ensure that AI satellites, through separate agencies, do not fulfill the above prophecy.

The association includes space scientists, law and policy experts, government, space industry, and AI assurance professionals, a field focused on maximizing the benefits of AI and minimizing its dangers. The team will develop a framework for assessing the reliability of AI systems in space for companies, satellite operators, regulators and insurers.

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Lily Kelly is an Australian reporter for The Epoch Times, covering social, renewable energy, environment and health and science.

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