Space junk is clogging the sky but 2 astronomers plan to build a space junk catalog

Scientists and government agencies have been worried about space junk surrounding the earth for many decades. But humanity’s stellar ambitions extend far beyond the space around Earth. Since the 1960s with the launch of the Apollo program and the advent of the US-Soviet space race, humans have also left trash around the Moon.

Today, experts estimate that there are several dozen pieces of space junk such as used rocket bodies, defunct satellites, and debris related to the cislunar-space orbit mission. Earth and the Moon and the area around the Moon. While this isn’t a huge amount of junk yet, astronomers have very little information about the location of these space debris, let alone what they are and how they got there.

I am a planetary scientist and also run Center for Space Safety, Security and Sustainability at the University of Arizona. As the focus of space activities shifts to the Moon, with each future mission, more junk will be left behind in cislunar space. This junk is an emerging problem that could create dangerous conditions for future astronauts and spacecraft.

My colleagues Roberto Furfaro and I hope to help prevent this problem from spiraling out of control. Together, we are using existing telescopes and databases on lunar missions to find, characterize and track space debris on the moon and build the world’s first catalog of cislunar space objects.

Abandoned and potentially dangerous

Historically, NASA and the US military have not closely tracked space debris from dozens of crew and robot missions to the Moon. Nor is there an international agency that monitors lunar objects. This lack of monitoring is why scientists don’t know the location or trajectory of most space debris on the Moon. And these objects won’t simply disappear – in the near-complete vacuum of space, whatever remains in orbit around the Moon or in cislunar space will likely be there for at least as long. decade.

The lack of information about man-made objects orbiting the Moon poses many risks to Moon missions.

The first is the risk of collision. Humanity is starting a new wave of lunar exploration. In the next 10 years, six countries and several trading companies plan more than 100 missions. With each mission, the risk of colliding with existing debris increases, and so does the total amount of debris when missions leave garbage.

Landing collisions on the Moon’s surface are also a real risk because the Moon doesn’t have a thick atmosphere that could ignite falling space junk. This has been clearly demonstrated by the effect of a Use Chinese rockets into the far side of the Moon in March 2022. My team and I are people finally determine that the object is of Chinese origin use a telescope we built to track objects in cislunar space. With both the US and China planning to build bases on the Moon in the coming years, falling debris could become a real threat to human life and infrastructure on the moon. Moon.

Hard to track

If you want to prevent the Moon from becoming a space junkyard, you need to be able to track cislunar space junk. But doing so is challenging even on a clear day for two main reasons: distance and light.

Cislunar space extends about 2.66 million miles from Earth – far beyond the distance that the US government currently tracking objects in space. But space is not just two-dimensional. The the three-dimensional volume of cislunar space is very large, and any object inside it is tiny by comparison.

Light presents another challenge. Just like the Moon, the luminosity of an object in cislunar space depends on how much sunlight the object reflects. During a crescent moon, the moon’s debris appears dim and low in the evening sky, making it difficult to find. During a full moon, the same objects are overhead and brighter due to more sunlight hitting them, but they blend in with the sky. glare surrounding the full moon. Spotting objects on a full moon is like trying to find the faint glow of a firefly next to a spotlight. In the glare of the moon is cone of shameso named because it is difficult to keep track of the objects within it.

Manage categories

Due to the difficulty and lack of appropriate resources to track near-Moon objects, no group or organization does so consistently today. So in 2020, Furfaro and I took on the challenge of discovering, tracking and catalog of man-made debris in cislunar . space.

First, we link together historical observations from different telescopes and databases to identify and confirm which cislunar objects are already known. Then, realizing that there was no dedicated telescope that scanned the night sky for cislunar objects, my students at the University of Arizona and I built one. By the end of 2020, we have completed the construction of the telescope with a diameter of 24 inches (0.6 meters in diameter), located at Biosphere Observatory 2 near Tucson.

The first object we tracked was Chang’e 5, China’s first lunar specimen return mission. The large rocket was launched on November 23, 2020, towards the Moon. Despite the glare of the moon, my students and I were still able to watch Hang Nga 5 to a distance of 12,354 miles from the Moon, deep into the Cone of Shame. With this success, we started tracking newly launched cislunar payloads and adding them to our new catalog. With this success, we have begun to monitor newly launched cislunar payloads so that we can calculate and predict their trajectories to prevent them from getting lost.

To describe old and new space debris, once we figure out where an object is, we use Optical and near-infrared telescopes on Earth to record the spectral signature of an object – specific wavelengths of light bouncing off an object’s surface. This way we can find out what material is made of and identify it. This is how we define Mysterious boosters crash into the moon in 2022. We can also measure changes in light reflected from an object over time to determine the object’s rotational speed, which can also help with identification.

Over the past two years, we’ve gotten better and better at finding and identifying objects in cislunar space. While at first we were happy to identify a Chang’e 5 spacecraft the size of a school bus, we can now track CubeSats no larger than a cereal box – like NASA’s Moon Flashlight.

So far, my team has been able to identify several dozen debris in cislunar space and is continuing to add to our ever-expanding catalog. Much of the work ahead consists of continuous observations and matching of objects with known tasks to confirm what objects are out there and where they come from.

While there is still a long way to go, these efforts are designed to ultimately form the basis of a portfolio that will help lead to safer, more sustainable use of cislunar orbital space as humanity grows. began to expand beyond the Earth.

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