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Our Space Trash Tracked by New Technology

Trash in Space.

Space garbage

We think our trash will never come back to bother  us.

We are silly humans to think that all of our experimental and derelict space equipment will just disappear into the vastness of space. We created space garbage — things that are littering up our pristine space.

Trash in space doesn’t leave the orbit — it just accumulates. And it’s been doing that for decades. So it’s no surprise when the science news arrived that we had found more trash than we expected. Our ability to see and track space debris is better than ever now — thanks to advances in tracking with Interplanetary Radar technology pioneered by NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in Pasadena, CA. So the first thing we did was become shocked at the amounts of it cluttering our skies.

Sometimes a bit of debris will fall back to Earth and we see it burn up. But tracking it was never on our list of things to do until it became a problem. The photo taken of our eminent growing problem (above) is from Science World Report.

It’s almost embarrassing. But there’s good news, too.

Our optical telescopes couldn’t see these small distant ones due to the bright glare of the Moon. So this new method successfully located a NASA spacecraft “Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter” (LRO) orbiting the Moon. Another one of them was still active but “lost.” Back in 2009, an Indian Space Research Organization’s “Chandrayaan-1” was spinning around the Moon on a polar obit.

Goldstone Complex near Bartow CA

NASA’s Goldstone Antenna sends radar beam for tracking space trash

JPL’s team of scientists used NASA’s 70-meter  — that’s 230 foot — antenna at Goldstone Deep Space Communications Complex north of Barstow, CA, to send out a powerful microwave beam aimed at the Moon. They found the Chandrayaan-1. Those radar echoes bounced back to and received by the 100- meter  — that’s 330 foot — Green Bank Telescope in West Virginia.

Math Does Count

FOund lunar orbit of spacecraft

Indian’s first spacecraft was lost since 2009

Although it’s very tricky, the team used data from the return signal to estimate its velocity and distance to update the orbital predictions. They in turn tracked the signals to verify that the predicted track was correct.

Follow up observations over the next few months were done with Arecibo Observatory in Puerto Rico — which has the most powerful astronomical radar system on Earth. Doing all this tracking and sharing resulted in a possible new capability. Working together, these super large radar antennas at Goldstone, Green Bank, and Arecibo proved that they could detect and track small spacecraft in lunar orbit.

The Lost & Found Department

This might come in handy for implementing a future robotic and human mission back to the Moon. Hazard assessments and encountering a potential navigation issue far into our future is another possibility.

So basically, space junk and new radar technology just forced us into a lunar recycling program on the biggest scale yet! Now, to clean up the garbage, we need the biggest trash bag ever inflated — and a twist tie to go with it.

–Rusty LaGrange

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