News / Science & Technology

Australian Scientists Track Space Junk by Listening to FM Radio

FM radio waves bouncing of a piece of space debris. (ARC Center of Excellence for All-sky Astrophysics)
FM radio waves bouncing of a piece of space debris. (ARC Center of Excellence for All-sky Astrophysics)
Rick Pantaleo
Scientists in Australia are planning on listening to local FM radio stations with a very sensitive radio telescope

No, they’re really not interested in hearing the latest song by Katy Perry or that controversial talk show that’s got people talking. 

The researchers will be listening to the reflected radio waves that bounce off the tons of space junk that circles our planet in the hopes of helping to prevent possible catastrophic, multi-billion-dollar collisions in space.

So far, the researchers have been able to track FM radio waves that bounced off the International Space Station, some 400 or so kilometers from the Earth’s surface, as it passed over Western Australia. 

Image of Earth surrounded by orbiting objects that are currently being tracked. Approximately 95% of these objects are space debris. (NASA)Image of Earth surrounded by orbiting objects that are currently being tracked. Approximately 95% of these objects are space debris. (NASA)
x
Image of Earth surrounded by orbiting objects that are currently being tracked. Approximately 95% of these objects are space debris. (NASA)
Image of Earth surrounded by orbiting objects that are currently being tracked. Approximately 95% of these objects are space debris. (NASA)
"We have shown that we are able to detect approximately 10 pieces of space junk simultaneously. Over time this means we are in a position to monitor a significant fraction of the space junk that is in Earth orbits," said the research team leader Professor Steven Tingay, of the Murchison Widefield Array (MWA) at Curtin University and the Australian Research Council Center for All-sky Astrophysics (CAASTRO).

The idea of using reflected FM radio signals with the MWA to track space debris came from a previous study conducted by a graduate student from the Australian National University. Ben McKinley imaged the moon in 2012 by using reflected FM signals that bounced off of our orbiting satellite.

NASA says that there are over 500,000 pieces of space junk orbiting Earth.  That junkyard of space debris circling Earth has been growing since the 1950s when the ‘Space Age’ first began. 

Space junk can range in size from very large items such as old rocket bodies and dead satellites to very tiny particles that can even include bits of paint that were on the surfaces of various spacecraft. There’s even a screwdriver which slipped from an astronaut's hand during a spacewalk to do some repair work.

Some of that space debris, especially those that are in low-Earth orbit, fall back to the planet, and much of it burns up during re-entry.

But the dangers of collisions with space junk are quite real with hundreds of the satellites we’ve come to depend on in serious jeopardy.  Even a two-millimeter fleck of paint zooming at speeds of between seven to eight kilometers per second, can seriously harm or possibly kill space travelers or destroy a billion-dollar communications satellite.

Aerial view of the Murchison Widefield Array (MWA) radio telescope in Western Australia's outback (Murchison Widefield Array)Aerial view of the Murchison Widefield Array (MWA) radio telescope in Western Australia's outback (Murchison Widefield Array)
x
Aerial view of the Murchison Widefield Array (MWA) radio telescope in Western Australia's outback (Murchison Widefield Array)
Aerial view of the Murchison Widefield Array (MWA) radio telescope in Western Australia's outback (Murchison Widefield Array)
While major collisions between large pieces of space debris are rare such incidents have happened. Back in Feb. 10, 2009, two large satellites, the Iridium 33 and the Kosmos 2251, collided at a speed of about 42,000 kilometers per hour. The collision spread about 1,000 pieces of debris capable of being tracked across the skies, where much of it remains.

To avoid harm from potentially dangerous space debris, the International Space Station conducts a number of collision avoidance maneuvers each year.

"An early warning system has the potential to protect the billions of dollars’ worth of vital infrastructure orbiting the earth but also prevent collisions that will result in even more space debris being generated…” said Tingay.

This new space junk detection and tracking effort from Australia joins other programs like those run by space agencies such as NASA and ESA.

You May Like

ASEAN Ministers Set to Push for South China Sea Agreements

According to documents obtained by VOA Khmer, ministers will stand up for 'freedom of navigation, unimpeded lawful maritime commerce, trade and over flight' More

Puerto Rico Defaults on $58M Debt Payment

Payment was due Saturday, default is first in country's 117 years as a United States possession More

Turkish Public Fears Jihadists More Than Kurds

Turkey facing twin threats of terrorism by Islamic State and PKK Kurdish separatists, says President Erdogan’s ruling AK Party More

Featured Videos

Your JavaScript is turned off or you have an old version of Adobe's Flash Player. Get the latest Flash player.
Iraqi Yazidis Fear Death of Their Communityi
X
Sharon Behn
August 03, 2015 2:23 PM
A year ago on August 3, Islamic State militants stormed the homelands of Iraq’s Yazidi minority, killing hundreds of men and enslaving thousands of women. The scenes of desperate Yazidi families crowding on the top of Sinjar mountain without food or water spurred Kurdish fighters into action, an emergency airlift and the start of the U.S. airstrike campaign against the Islamic State Sunni extremists. VOA's Sharon Benh reports from northern Iraq.
Video

Video Iraqi Yazidis Fear Death of Their Community

A year ago on August 3, Islamic State militants stormed the homelands of Iraq’s Yazidi minority, killing hundreds of men and enslaving thousands of women. The scenes of desperate Yazidi families crowding on the top of Sinjar mountain without food or water spurred Kurdish fighters into action, an emergency airlift and the start of the U.S. airstrike campaign against the Islamic State Sunni extremists. VOA's Sharon Benh reports from northern Iraq.
Video

Video Bangkok Warned It Soon Could Be Submerged

Italy's Venice and America's New Orleans are not the only cities gradually submerging. The nearly ten million residents of the Bangkok urban area now must confront warnings the city could become uninhabitable in a few decades. VOA Correspondent Steve Herman reports from the Thai capital.
Video

Video Inclusive Gym Gets People With Disabilities in Fitness Spirit

Individuals with special needs are 58 percent more likely to be obese than the general population. According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control, they also have an increased likelihood of anxiety, depression and social isolation. But a sports club outside Washington wants to make a difference in these people's lives. With Carol Pearson narrating, VOA's June Soh reports.
Video

Video Astronauts Train Underwater for Deep Space Missions

Manned deep space missions are still a long way off, but space agencies are already testing procedures, equipment and human stamina for operations in extreme environment conditions. Small groups of astronauts take turns in spending days in an underwater lab, off Florida’s southern coast, simulating future missions to some remote world. VOA’s George Putic reports.
Video

Video Special Olympics Show Competitors' Skill, Determination

Special Olympics competitions will wrap up Saturday in Los Angeles, and the closing ceremony for athletes with intellectual disabilities will be held Sunday night. In a week of competition, athletes have shown what they can do through skill and determination. VOA's Mike O'Sullivan reports.
Video

Video Civil Rights Leaders Struggled to Achieve Voting Rights Act

Fifty years ago, lawmakers approved, and U.S. President Lyndon Johnson signed, the Voting Rights Act of 1965. The measure outlawed racial discrimination in voting, giving millions of blacks in many parts of the southern United States federal enforcement of the right to vote. Correspondent Chris Simkins introduces us to some civil rights leaders who were on the front lines in the struggle for voting rights.
Video

Video Shooter’s Grill: Serving Food with a Touch of the Second Amendment

Shooter's Grill, a restaurant in Rifle, Colorado, attracts visitors from all over the world as well as local patrons. The reason? Waitresses openly carry loaded firearms as they serve food, and customers are welcome to carry them, too. VOA's Enming Liu and Lin Yang paid a visit to Shooter's Grill, and heard different opinions about this unique establishment.
Video

Video Despite Controversy, Business Owner Continues Sale of Confederate Flags

At Cooter’s, a store in rural Sperryville, Virginia, about 120 kilometers west of Washington, D.C., Confederate flags are flying off the shelves. The red, white and blue battle flag, with 13 white stars representing the Confederate states, was carried by southern forces during the U.S. Civil War in the 1860s. The South had seceded from the Union over several key issues of disagreement, including slavery. VOA’s Deborah Block has the story.
Video

Video Booming London Property a ‘Haven for Dirty Money’

Billions of dollars of so-called ‘dirty money’ from the proceeds of crime - especially from Russia - are being laundered through the London property market, according to anti-corruption activists. As Henry Ridgwell reports from the British capital, the government has pledged to crack down on the practice.
Video

Video Hometown of Boy Scouts of America Founder Reacts to Gay Leader Decision

Ottawa, Illinois, is the hometown of W.D. Boyce, who founded the Boy Scouts of America in 1910. In Ottawa, where Scouting remains an important part of the legacy of the community, the end of the organization's ban on openly gay adult leaders was seen as inevitable. VOA's Kane Farabaugh reports.

VOA Blogs