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

African States Push to Keep Boko Haram Offline

Central African telecoms ministers working with Nigeria to block all videos posted by Boko Haram in effort to blunt Nigerian militant group's propaganda More

Falling Oil Prices, Internet-Savvy Youth Pose Challenge for Gulf Monarchies

Across the Gulf, younger generations are putting a strain on traditional politics More

Philippines Call Center Workers Face Challenges

Country has world’s largest business process outsourcing, or BPO, industry, employing some one-million workers More

Featured Videos

Your JavaScript is turned off or you have an old version of Adobe's Flash Player. Get the latest Flash player.
US Supreme Court Hears Hijab Discrimination Casei
X
Katherine Gypson
February 25, 2015 11:30 PM
The U.S. Supreme Court has heard opening arguments in a workplace religious discrimination case that examines whether a clothing store can refuse to hire a young woman for wearing the headscarf she says is a symbol of her Muslim faith. Katherine Gypson reports from the Supreme Court.
Video

Video US Supreme Court Hears Hijab Discrimination Case

The U.S. Supreme Court has heard opening arguments in a workplace religious discrimination case that examines whether a clothing store can refuse to hire a young woman for wearing the headscarf she says is a symbol of her Muslim faith. Katherine Gypson reports from the Supreme Court.
Video

Video Falling Gas Prices Hurt Nascent Illinois Hydraulic Fracturing Industry

Falling oil prices are helping consumers purchase cheaper petroleum at the pump. But that’s made hydraulic fracturing or “fracking” less economically viable for the companies in the United States invested in the process. VOA’s Kane Farabaugh reports on one Midwestern town that was hoping to change its fortunes by cashing in on the next big U.S. oil boom.
Video

Video Fighting in Sudan's South Kordofan Fuels Mass Displacement

Heavy fighting in Sudan's South Kordofan state is causing hundreds of thousands to flee into uncertain conditions. Local aid organizations estimate as many as 400,000 civilians have been internally displaced since the conflict began more than three years ago, while another 250,000 have fled across the border to refugee camps in South Sudan. VOA's Adam Bailes reports.
Video

Video Lao Dam Project Runs Into Opposition

A Lao dam project on a section of the Mekong River is drawing opposition from local fishermen, international environmental groups and neighboring countries. VOA's Say Mony visited the region to investigate the concerns. Colin Lovett narrates.
Video

Video A Filmmaker Discovers Her Biracial Identity in "Little White Lie

Lacey Schwartz grew up in an upper middle-class Jewish family, in a town in upstate New York where almost everyone she knew was white. She assumed that she was, as well. Her recent documentary, Little White Lie, tells the story of how she uncovered the secret of her true racial background. VOA’s Carolyn Weaver has more on the film.
Video

Video Deep Under Antarctic Ice Sheet, Life!

With the end of summer in the Southern hemisphere, the Antarctic research season is over. Scientists from Northern Illinois University are back in their laboratory after a 3-month expedition on the Ross Ice Shelf, the world’s largest floating ice sheet. As VOA’s Rosanne Skirble reports, they hope to find clues to explain the dynamics of the rapidly melting ice and its impact on sea level rise.
Video

Video US-Cuba Normalization Talks Resume Friday

Negotiations aimed at normalizing diplomatic relations between the U.S. and Cuba resume Friday. On the table: lifting a half-century trade embargo and easing banking and travel restrictions. There's opposition in Congress, but some analysts say there may be sufficient political and economic incentives in both nations for a potential breakthrough this year. VOA's Mil Arcega reports.
Video

Video Pakistan's Deadline For SIM Registration Has Cellphone Users Scrambling

Pakistani cell phone users have until midnight Thursday to register their SIM cards, or their service will be cut off. While some privacy experts worry about government intrusion, many Pakistanis are just worried about keeping their phone lines open. VOA Deewa reporter Arshad Muhmand has more from Peshawar.
Video

Video Myanmar Warns Factory Workers to End Strikes

Outside Myanmar's main city Yangon, thousands of workers walked off their jobs earlier this month demanding a doubling of their wages, pay raises after a year and input from labor unions on industrial regulations. Since Friday, the standoff has grown more tense as police moved in to disrupt the sit-ins, resulting in clashes that injured people from both sides. VOA correspondent Steve Herman visited industrial zones which have become a focus of Myanmar's fledgling workers rights movement.
Video

Video Oscar Winners Do More Than Thank the Academy

The Academy Awards presentation is Hollywood’s night to reward the best movies from the previous year. It’s typically a lot of glitter, a lot of thank you’s, a lot of speeches. But many of this year’s speeches carried messages beyond the thank you's. VOA’s Carolyn Presutti takes a look.

All About America

Circumventing Censorship

An Internet Primer for Healthy Web Habits

As surveillance and censoring technologies advance, so, too, do new tools for your computer or mobile device that help protect your privacy and break through Internet censorship.
More