WA radiotelescope helps track space junk

The new Murchison Widefield Array in central WA will help track space junk, which can destroy satellites and threaten the International Space Station.

Australia's newest radioastronomy project is helping to detect potentially lethal space junk, an eminent scientist says.

The Murchison Widefield Array (MWA) in WA's Mid West region went into "full science" mode two months ago and will soon be peering back in time to image the first stars and galaxies that formed after the Big Bang.

But it is also going to play an important, practical role in earth's orbit - detecting and tracking rapidly accumulating space junk which could be lethal if it hurtles out of control.

Even the smallest bits of debris can cause huge damage to expensive and strategically important civilian and defence communications assets.

Despite extensive efforts worldwide to monitor space junk, in 2009, an Iridium satellite worth hundreds of millions of dollars was completely destroyed by flotsam from a defunct Russian satellite.

The relative speed of the collision was 11km/second, unleashing a massive spray of shrapnel.

Without rapid detection, more collisions can follow such incidents.

"Over the past few decades, we've launched more and more rockets and satellites into earth's orbit, and it's getting very crowded and very cluttered up there - quite a dangerous place to be if you're an expensive satellite," MWA director Steven Tingay told AAP.

"The level of junk in space is sometimes described as at the tipping point: it could get chaotically out of control with the cascade of chain reaction."

Space junk is a big hassle for the International Space Station, which has to manoeuver out of the way of errant objects several times a year.

Being manned, that means lives are potentially at risk, Professor Tingay said.

Prof. Tingay said the MWA, a precursor to the international Square Kilometre Array (SKA) project, was able to detect objects half a metre in size as far as 1000km away.

He said the facility planned to use FM radio waves that are constantly transmitted from earth and "reflect" off space junk to track the objects, describing this approach as low cost, effective "passive radar".

"We hope to slot this into Australia's overall capabilities in terms of space situational awareness," Prof Tingay said.

A lot of thought is being put into cleaning up space junk, including launching satellites that effectively act as a vacuum.

That was technically possible but a very expensive proposition, Prof Tingay said.

"I think this is an indication of the level of, almost, desperation that's reached into this whole activity. People are now contemplating that style of mission.

"I consider it a pretty extreme measure.

"It means you've put a lot of junk out there."

Prof Tingay will deliver a public lecture on how astronomy is being reinvented with radio telescopes, focusing on the MWA and SKA, at Perth's Curtin University on Wednesday night from 6.30pm (WST).

Source AAP

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