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

    S. African Farmer Goes From 'Voice in the Wilderness' to Sought-After Expert

    Margarest Roberts has authored more than 40 books on subjects like organic farming, urban agriculture, herbs and ‘superfoods'

    Millennial Men Prefer Bucks Over Beauty

    U.S. men aged 18 to 34 say the finances of a potential significant other are more important than her looks

    Multimedia Lebanese Clown Troupe Marks Valentine's Day Amid Stink

    Activists resort to unusual approaches to raise public awareness of country’s ongoing trash crisis

    Featured Videos

    Your JavaScript is turned off or you have an old version of Adobe's Flash Player. Get the latest Flash player.
    Russia's Car Sales Shrink Overall, But Luxury and Economy Models See Growthi
    X
    February 10, 2016 5:54 AM
    Car sales in Russia dropped by more than a third in 2015 because of the country's economic woes. But, at the extreme ends of the car market, luxury vehicles and some economy brands are actually experiencing growth. VOA's Daniel Schearf reports from Moscow.
    Video

    Video Russia's Car Sales Shrink Overall, But Luxury and Economy Models See Growth

    Car sales in Russia dropped by more than a third in 2015 because of the country's economic woes. But, at the extreme ends of the car market, luxury vehicles and some economy brands are actually experiencing growth. VOA's Daniel Schearf reports from Moscow.
    Video

    Video Civil Rights Pioneer Remembers Struggle for Voting Rights

    February is Black History Month in the United States. The annual, month-long national observance pays tribute to important people and events that shaped the history of African Americans. VOA's Chris Simkins reports how one man fought against discrimination to help millions of blacks obtain the right to vote
    Video

    Video Jordanian Theater Group Stages Anti-Terrorism Message

    The lure of the self-styled “Islamic State” has many parents worried about their children who may be susceptible to the organization’s online propaganda. Dozens of Muslim communities in the Middle East are fighting back -- giving young adults alternatives to violence. One group in Jordan is using dramatic expression a send a family message. Mideast Broadcasting Network correspondent Haider Al Abdali shared this report with VOA. It’s narrated by Bronwyn Benito
    Video

    Video Migrant Crisis Fuels Debate Over Britain’s Future in EU

    The migrant crisis in Europe is fueling the debate in Britain ahead of a referendum on staying in the European Union that may be held this year. Prime Minister David Cameron warns that leaving the EU could lead to thousands more migrants arriving in the country. Meanwhile, tension is rising in Calais, France, where thousands of migrants are living in squalid camps. VOA's Henry Ridgwell reports.
    Video

    Video Valentine's Day Stinks for Lebanese Clowns

    This weekend, on Valentine's Day in Lebanon, love is not the only thing in the air. More than half a year after the country's trash crisis began, the stink of uncollected garbage remains on the streets. Step forward "Clown Me In," a group of clowns who use their skills for activism. Before the most romantic day of the year the clowns have released their unusual take on love in Lebanon -- in a bid to keep the pressure up and get the trash off the streets. John Owens reports from Beirut.
    Video

    Video Families Flee Aleppo for Kurdish Regions in Syria

    Not all who flee the fighting in Aleppo are trying to cross the border into Turkey. A VOA reporter caught up with several families heading for Kurdish-held areas of northern Syria.
    Video

    Video Rocky Year Ahead for Nigeria Amid Oil Price Crash

    The global fall in the price of oil has rattled the economies of many petroleum exporters, and Africa’s oil king Nigeria is no exception. As Chris Stein reports from Lagos, analysts are predicting a rough year ahead for the continent’s top producer of crude.
    Video

    Video 'No Means No' Program Targets Sexual Violence in Kenya

    The organizers of an initiative to reduce and stop rape in the informal settlements around Kenya's capital say their program is having marked success. Girls are taking self-defense classes while the boys are learning how to protect the girls and respect them. Lenny Ruvaga reports from Nairobi.
    Video

    Video Chocolate Lovers Get a Sweet History Lesson

    Observed in many countries around the world, Valentine’s Day is sometimes celebrated with chocolate festivals. But at a festival near Washington, the visitors experience a bit more than a sugar rush. They go on a sweet journey through history. VOA’s June Soh takes us to the festival.
    Video

    Video 'Smart' Bandages Could Heal Wounds More Quickly

    Simple bandages are usually seen as the first line of attack in healing small to moderate wounds and burns. But scientists say new synthetic materials with embedded microsensors could turn bandages into a much more valuable tool for emergency physicians. VOA’s George Putic reports.
    Video

    Video Researchers Use 3-D Printer to Produce Transplantable Body Parts

    Human organ transplants have become fairly common around the world in the past few decades. Researchers at various universities are coordinating their efforts to find solutions -- including teams at the University of Pennsylvania and Rice University in Houston that are experimenting with a 3-D printer -- to make blood vessels and other structures for implant. As VOA’s Greg Flakus reports from Houston, they are also using these artificial body parts to seek ways of defeating cancerous tumors.
    Video

    Video Helping the Blind 'See' Great Art

    There are 285 million blind and visually impaired people in the world who are unable to enjoy visual art at a museum. One New York photographer is trying to fix this situation by making tangible copies of the world’s masterpieces. VOA correspondent Victoria Kupchinetsky was there as visually impaired people got a feel for great art. Joy Wagner narrates her report.
    Video

    Video German Artists to Memorialize Refugees With Life Jacket Exhibit

    Sold in every kind of shop in some Turkish port towns, life jackets have become a symbol of the refugee crisis that brought a million people to Europe in 2015.  On the shores of Lesbos, Greece, German artists collect discarded life jackets as they prepare an art installation they plan to display in Germany.  For VOA, Hamada Elrasam has this report from Lesbos, Greece.
    Video

    Video E-readers Help Ease Africa's Book Shortage

    Millions of people in Africa can't read, and there's a chronic shortage of books. A non-profit organization called Worldreader is trying to help change all that one e-reader at a time. VOA’s Deborah Block tells us about a girls' school in Nairobi, Kenya where Worldreader is making a difference.