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Adaptive optics to enhance tracking of space debris

Adaptive optics to enhance tracking of space debris

A ground-based telescope launches an IR laser ahead of a target (a) such that the object (b) intersects the beam. A laser guide star in a layer of sodium in the atmosphere, acts as a reference beacon to measure the atmospheric turbulence.
A ground-based telescope launches an IR laser ahead of a target (a) such that the object (b) intersects the beam. A laser guide star in a layer of sodium in the atmosphere, acts as a reference beacon to measure the atmospheric turbulence.

Since the first artificial satellite was launched in 1957, we have been sending more and more objects into orbit every year. With each launch, items are left behind in space after the functional satellite is delivered. These objects are collectively known as space debris, and range from old rocket motors and fuel tanks to fragments of metal from sacrificial assemblies holding rocket stages together. The space above Earth is full of this debris, which is starting to pose a real hazard to operational satellites. An object in orbit has a velocity on the order of kilometers per second, and therefore even something the size of a small bolt could be fatal to the delicate hardware of an operational satellite.

We can track large pieces of space debris easily from the ground either optically or using radar. Derelict satellites and old rocket bodies are objects that we know, catalog, and track regularly. If there is any danger of one of these colliding with a functional satellite, tracking stations will receive that information and pass it to the satellite operator, who can judge whether to alter their system's orbit to avoid a collision. Radar tracking works very well in this situation, providing orbital accuracy to within a few kilometers.

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August 3, 2014


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