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

Lesotho Faces New Round of Violence, Political Crisis

Brutal killing of military officer has sent former leaders back into S. Africa where they're watching anxiously as regional officials head in to try to restore peace More

Video VOA EXCLUSIVE: US Diplomat Expects Adoption of Bosnian Massacre Anniversary Resolution

Samantha Power says there's broad consensus about killings in Bosnia's war, but Russia calls resolution 'divisive,' backs countermeasure at UN More

UN Report Exposes Widespread Boko Haram Atrocities

Damning report graphically details pattern of vicious, widespread atrocities committed by Islamist militants More

Featured Videos

Your JavaScript is turned off or you have an old version of Adobe's Flash Player. Get the latest Flash player.
Family of American Marine Calls for Release From Iranian Prisoni
X
Heather Murdock
July 01, 2015 8:59 PM
As the crowd of journalists covering the Iran talks swells, so too do the opportunities for media coverage.  Hoping to catch the attention of high-level diplomats, the family of American-Iranian marine Amir Hekmati is in Vienna, pleading for his release from an Iranian prison after nearly 4 years.  VOA’s Heather Murdock reports from Vienna.
Video

Video Family of American Marine Calls for Release From Iranian Prison

As the crowd of journalists covering the Iran talks swells, so too do the opportunities for media coverage.  Hoping to catch the attention of high-level diplomats, the family of American-Iranian marine Amir Hekmati is in Vienna, pleading for his release from an Iranian prison after nearly 4 years.  VOA’s Heather Murdock reports from Vienna.
Video

Video UK Holds Terror Drill as MPs Mull Tunisia Response

After pledging a tough response to last Friday’s terror attack in Tunisia, which came just days before the 10th anniversary of the bomb attacks on London’s transport network, British security services are shifting their focus to overseas counter-terror operations. VOA's Henry Ridgwell has more.
Video

Video Obama on Cuba: This is What Change Looks Like

President Barack Obama says the United States will soon reopen its embassy in Cuba for the first time since 1961, ending a half-century of isolation. VOA White House correspondent Luis Ramirez reports.
Video

Video Hate Groups Spread Influence Via Internet

Hate groups of various kinds are using the Internet for propaganda and recruitment, and a Jewish human rights organization that monitors these groups, the Simon Wiesenthal Center, says their influence is growing. The messages are different, but the calls to hatred or violence are similar. VOA's Mike O’Sullivan reports.
Video

Video US Silica Sand Mining Surge Worries Illinois Residents, Businesses

Increased domestic U.S. oil and gas production, thanks to advances known as “fracking,” has created a boom for other industries supporting that extraction. Demand for silica sand, used in fracking, could triple over the next five years. In the Midwest state of Illinois, people living near the mines are worried about how increased silica sand mining will affect their businesses and their health. VOA’s Kane Farabaugh has more in this first of a series of reports.
Video

Video Blind Somali Journalist Defies Odds in Mogadishu

Despite improving security in the last few years, Somalia remains one of the most dangerous countries to be a journalist – even more so for someone who cannot see. Abdulaziz Billow has the story of journalist Abdifatah Hassan Kalgacal, who has been reporting from the Somali capital for the last decade despite being blind.
Video

Video Texas Defies Same-Sex Marriage Ruling

Texas state officials have criticized the US Supreme Court decision giving same-sex couples the right to marry nationwide. The attorney general of Texas says last week's decision did not overrule constitutional "rights of religious liberty," and therefore officials performing wedding services can refuse to perform them for same-sex couples if it is against their religious beliefs. Zlatica Hoke reports on the controversy.
Video

Video Rabbi Hits Road to Heal Jewish-Muslim Relations in France

France is on high alert after last week's terrorist attack near the city Lyon, just six months after deadly Paris shootings. The attack have added new tensions to relations between French Jews and Muslims. France’s Jewish and Muslim communities also share a common heritage, though, and as far as one French rabbi is concerned, they are destined to be friends. From the Paris suburb of La Courneuve, Lisa Bryant reports about Rabbi Michel Serfaty and his friendship bus.
Video

Video Saudi Leaks Expose ‘Checkbook Diplomacy’ In Battle With Iran

Saudi Arabia’s willingness to wield its oil money on the global diplomatic stage appears to have been laid bare, after the website WikiLeaks published tens of thousands of leaked cables from Riyadh’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs. VOA's Henry Ridgwell reports.
Video

Video Nubians in Kenya Face Land Challenges

East Africa's ethnic Nubians have a rich cultural history that dates back thousands of years, but in Kenya they are facing hardships, including the loss of lands they have lived on for generations. They say the government has reneged on its pledge to award them title deeds for the plots. VOA's Lenny Ruvaga reports.
Video

Video Military Experts Question New Russian Tank Capabilities

Russia has been showing off its new tank design – the Armata T-14. Designers claim it is 20 years ahead of current Western designs - and driving it feels like playing a computer game. But military analysts question those assertions, and warn the cost could be too heavy a burden for Russia’s struggling economy. Henry Ridgwell reports.
Video

Video In Kenya, Police Said to Shoot First, Ask Questions Later

An organization that documents torture and extrajudicial killings says Kenyan police were responsible for 1,252 shooting deaths in five cities, including Nairobi, between 2009 and 2014, representing 67 percent of all gun deaths in the areas reviewed. Gabe Joselow has more from Nairobi.

VOA Blogs