A mission to control space junk and asteroids
An EU-funded research network has studied the threat of space junk and asteroids, helping to minimise their risks and better protect our planet, satellites and spaceships from potentially catastrophic hits.
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Space debris and asteroids are two of the biggest threats facing us when it comes to what lies beyond our planet, with efforts being stepped up to combat these dangers.
Earths orbit is littered with more than 500 000 pieces of space junk each travelling at up to 17 500 miles per hour. These have the potential to destroy satellites and spaceships. Further afield, asteroids hurtling towards Earth pose an unlikely but potentially catastrophic risk to our planet as evidenced by the extinction of the dinosaurs.
The EU-funded STARDUST project has helped tackle the threat of space junk and asteroids, primarily through modelling and simulations, and by studying the orbit and attitude of space junk and how to deflect or remove asteroids.
In the short term, the future of all space services like weather forecasts, Global Navigation Systems, telecommunication, TV broadcasting, climate and disaster monitoring, depend on the vulnerability of our space assets to space debris, says project coordinator Massimiliano Vasile, a professor of space systems engineering and director of the Aerospace Centre of Excellence at the University of Strathclyde, UK.
STARDUST research which also involved NASA and universities in Japan, Australia and the United States has developed better modelling and understanding of the motion of space debris.
This has resulted in new disposal strategies exploiting natural dynamics, including resonances with the motion of the moon, the sun and the Earths gravity. These techniques will help to better predict the future of constellations like Galileo and GPS, as well as satellites in Geosynchronous Orbit and Low Earth Orbit and to design the best possible disposal strategies.
Understanding the evolution of the space environment and viable ways to clean it up is of paramount importance to maintain all those vital services that are worth billions of euros, says Vasile.
An asteroid of a similar scale to one that hit the Earth 60 million years ago could wipe out our civilisation. This means that understanding asteroids, how to predict their orbits and developing ways to deflect potential hits is incredibly important.
The STARDUST project worked on improved models to understand and predict the motion of so-called Near Earth Asteroids and their origins. It developed techniques to manipulate asteroids that will help humans be ready in the case of a potential impact.
The project has also helped build up knowledge on how laser ablation could theoretically be used to remove debris and manipulate asteroids. It proved that, in some scenarios, it might be the best way to deflect asteroids.
But, however dangerous they may be, asteroids could also become an asset for humans if used in the right way.
Studies have shown that asteroid mining harvesting materials like water or minerals from them could be a crucial part of our future if we hope to travel to other planets such as Mars.
STARDUST research also examined how to get closer to asteroids, control their orbits and use their resources for our benefit.
Three industry training events were organised in collaboration with the project, which received funding from the EUs Marie Skłodowska-Curie actions programme and also involved the training of young scientists.
Besides the scientific results, we trained 15 young scientists who have now found jobs in academia and industry or have created their own spin-offs, says Vasile. In this respect STARDUST was a complete success as many of them continued along the path started in STARDUST.