RMIT University has signed on to a major new research initiative to help clean up our increasingly cluttered space environment.
RMIT is one of three essential participants of a new Australian Cooperative Research Centre (CRC) for Space Environment Management, based at Mount Stromlo in the Australian Capital Territory.
Enabled by a $20 million grant from the Australian Government’s Department of Industry, the CRC creates a high-tech consortium of aerospace industry companies, including universities and some of the world’s leading space agencies.
Space is a crowded place – the near-Earth space environment has become progressively cluttered with objects resulting from over 50 years of space operations.
About 500,000 objects between 1cm and 10cm in diameter lie in this region and the number of objects smaller than 1cm is estimated to be upwards of 100 million.
Professor Kefei Zhang, Director of the RMIT Satellite Positioning for Atmosphere, Climate and Environment (SPACE) Research Centre, said these objects travelled at speeds over 10,000 km/h and posed a significant threat to active satellites and the International Space Station.
"The vast majority of debris objects result from spent rocket bodies, separation of stages during payload launches, collisions, anti-satellite tests, explosions, fuel ejections, and fragmentations," Professor Zhang said.
"A collision between one piece of debris and a satellite may cause severe damage or destruction, with the potential to create even more debris.
"If we don’t do something about this, space may be unusable within 20 to 30 years due to the ever-increasing amount of debris."
Modern societies now fundamentally depend on assured and secure access to space assets for the most basic requirements including navigation, time, communications, border protection, climate change, defence, weather monitoring, and law enforcement.
"The economic and social impact on Australia of a loss of access to space capabilities would be nothing less than catastrophic," Professor Zhang said.
The new Space Environment Management CRC will perform cutting-edge research into platform technologies for space, atmosphere and climate applications. Photo: NASA.
The new Space Environment Management CRC will build on world-leading Australian innovations to reduce and ultimately prevent the loss of satellite capacity.
It brings together world-leading expertise and resources to:
- track space debris more often and more accurately,
- improve predictions of space debris orbits; and,
- predict and monitor potential collisions in space.
The CRC has developed four research programs – tracking, orbits, collisions and manoeuvre – with RMIT bringing expertise in orbits and collisions to the new CRC.
"Current technology requires daily tracking to maintain predictive capability of space debris," Professor Zhang said.
"The CRC will help improve orbit determination techniques to extend the tracking interval to at least two days and reduce the future cost of debris tracking infrastructure.
"We will also aim to improve collision avoidance prediction at least 10-fold, which will help make collision avoidance prediction useful for the first time."
Key outcomes of RMIT’s input to this research will be new methods and platform systems for robust orbit prediction, improved collision warning, reliable ballistic coefficient estimation, and the effects of solar activity variability.
RMIT has a long history of collaborating with industry and began working with EOS Space Systems in Australia in 2005 via an ARC-APAI linkage project.
In 2010, the RMIT SPACE Research Centre was launched and is primarily funded through the Australian Space Research Program platform technology project.
As a serious player in the space industry, the centre is committed to advancing the global competitive status of the Australian space industry.
It performs cutting-edge research into platform technologies for space, atmosphere and climate applications.
The other Space Environment Management CRC research team members are the Australian National University (Australia), EOS Space Systems (Australia), Lockheed Martin (USA), NASA Ames Research Center (USA), National Institute of Information and Communications Technology (Japan) and Optus (Australia).
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