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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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Space Between Our Mutual High Deserts is Deep

Deep Space Complex, Goldstone CA

A sunset like none other through Goldstone Dish

Many readers have been asking me personally how the High Desert is so important to our economy or its versatile history over the years. While it’s true that most think of the desert as a dry expanse of sand and nothing lives in it, we can blame that on early Hollywood movies and mid-century TV westerns. We know that contrary to those first impressions, the desert is vibrant with wildlife, fields of flowers, cacti, and the people who see it as their home.

The link between what the High Deserts in particular around the nation — and there are more than one –offer to the economy covers a lot of industries. Without wide open deserts in Oregon, Nevada, New Mexico and California, we wouldn’t have a territory to experiment with deep space satellites, radio astronomy, radio telemetry or space telescopes.

Goldstone Complex near Bartow CA

Daylight in the Mojave Desert, Goldstone complex

Part One –

Space industry is a general term that can be split into three parts: manned flight, scientific testing, and deep space. The wide open spaces of our Southern California High Desert promotes terrific radio and satellite signals coming and going. The clear air, lack of cities with street lights, and the reduction in noise levels riding on the airwaves, make the desert a perfect place for doing experiments in sending and receiving amplified signals out to Deep Space crafts that have reported their findings automatically since the 1960s.

The Voyager 1 and 2 space crafts, launched the summer of 1977, used as their fact-finding mission intensive cameras to fly by the planets and probe into deep space. They had an approximate life span of six years – they’re now going on 37 years. However, when it comes to battery life, Voyager 1 has a leg up on the iPhone (and just about any other consumer electronic, for that matter). The spacecraft has a plutonium power supply that boasts an 88-year half-life, meaning we’ll stay in touch for years.

The Voyager space crafts will be the third and fourth human spacecraft to fly beyond all the planets in our Solar System. Pioneers 10 and 11 preceded Voyager in outstripping the gravitational attraction of the Sun but on February 17, 1998, Voyager 1 passed Pioneer 10 to become the most distant human-made object in space.

A diagram of Heliopause concept

Voyager is near the outer edges of the known universe

The Heliopause

While the exact location of the Heliopause is not known, it has been estimated that Voyager could reach this entry into interstellar space 10 years after crossing the Termination Shock. The heliopause is the demarcation of where the Sun loses influence in space as it touches the outer edges of the Universe. It’s a concept still being studied. (Voyager 1 entered interstellar space on August 25, 2012.) As of September 2013, Voyager 1 was at a distance of 18.7 billion kilometers (125.3 AU) from the Sun. Voyager 2 was at a distance of 15.3 billion kilometers (102.6 AU).

Sharing Data –

So, to keep tracking these spacecraft deep into the unknown, there are only three quiet and remote desert locations in the world where the signals can be captured. All three are desert-like, provide clear skies avoiding traffic, city lights, and noiseless skies. One is here in California’s Mojave Desert at Goldstone (Deep Space Network) near Barstow. The others are near Canberra Australia and Madrid Spain. Although they aren’t true dry deserts like ours, they provide the environments for good signals and transmissions.

Voyager probe

Unmanned Voyager launched in 1977

The Deep Space Network (DSN) supports NASA and non-NASA missions that explore the furthest points of our solar system. The DSN has these three ground stations located approximately 120 degrees apart on Earth (120 + 120 + 120 = 360). This is to ensure that any satellite in deep space is able to communicate with at least one station at all times. The ground stations also communicate with satellites in order to initiate course corrections, provide software updates, and alter the way scientific observations are made.

In Part 2 I’ll share information about the New Mexico High Desert called St. Augustine Plains and the Very Large Array that moves on short railroad tracks.

Rusty LaGrange

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