Mitigating the Dangers of Junk in Space


Image of cislunar debris

Debris from space missions has accumulated around and between the Earth and our moon since the 1950s. University of Arizona scientists have developed telescopes and algorithms to find, identify and track that junk to help protect lives and avert equipment damage in future missions.

More than 100 lunar missions are planned for the coming decade. Junk in cislunar space – the zone that extends about 2.66 million miles from Earth – creates collision risks for those missions. Unimpeded by the moon’s thin atmosphere, falling junk could also disastrously smash planned lunar bases.

Despite these dangers, no group or organization has consistently tracked objects near the moon. For starters, the vastness of cislunar space defies simple description. Imagine looking for a lentil suspended in a swimming pool 30 times the size of Earth – not a precise analogy, but not far off.
Moonlight further complicates the task. “Spotting objects during a full moon is like trying to find a firefly’s faint glow next to a bright searchlight,” says UArizona Space4 Center Director Vishnu Reddy, who co-leads the project with Robert Furfaro, professor in the College of Engineering. 

The team developed telescopes to suppress stray light. Other technologies capture the wavelengths of light bouncing off junk. Algorithms trained in the physics of space drift link that information with other data to ultimately identify objects, deduce their origins and calculate their most likely ongoing trajectories.


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