Tracking Spinning Space Junk
Space junk is a big problem, and scientists all over the world are working on solutions (see this recent article Australians To Zap Space Junk Ala Arthur C. Clarke for one example).
But now, MIT boffins have used DARPA funding to create an algorithm that will help the space junk collectors of the future pursue and capture each randomly spinning fragment.
(MIT effort to track spinning space junk)
The algorithm is intended to allow those in space to see how a piece of debris, or one day something as big as a comet, is spinning in space.
Being able to track its movements accurately will allow those who are going to remove it from space to be able to do so safely.
Alvar Saenz-Otero, from MIT, explained the importance of being able to predict the movements: “There are thousands of pieces of broken satellites in space. If you were to send a supermassive spacecraft up there, yes, you could collect all of those, but it would cost lots of money.
“But if you send a small spacecraft, and you try to dock to a small, tumbling thing, you also are going to start tumbling. So you need to observe that thing that you know nothing about so you can grab it and control it.”
The MIT space junk algorithm was deployed using MIT's own SPHERES, which are basketball-sized free-flying satellites inspired by Star Wars seeker remotes (used by Luke Skywalker for light saber practice).
Science fiction writers and anime creators have busily attacked the space junk problem in their own way. Fans may also recall Planetes, an anime series published by Makoto Yakimura in Japan starting in 1999. The series follows a team of debris cleaners who clear space junk from flight paths.
Planetes cover art
Probably the earliest sf treatment of the idea is in the 1978 novel The Fountains of Paradise; Arthur C. Clarke uses Operation Cleanup to make sure that low earth orbit is clear of debris for the newly constructed space elevator.
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