The Optical Orbital Debris Spotter is capable of detecting debris with sizes as small as about 0.01 centimeters in the vicinity of a host spacecraft for near real-time damage attribution and characterization of dense debris fields.  Credit: Naval Research Laboratory (NRL)

The Optical Orbital Debris Spotter is capable of detecting debris with sizes as small as about 0.01 centimeters in the vicinity of a host spacecraft for near real-time damage attribution and characterization of dense debris fields.
Credit: Naval Research Laboratory (NRL)

Earth orbiting clutter comes in all sizes: upper stages to paint chips to small shards of spacecraft leftovers.

The number of human-made debris objects orbiting the Earth continues to increase at a worrisome rate, with objects smaller than one centimeter (cm) exceeding 100 million.

Put at risk from some high-speed flotsam are operating satellites and human-carrying vessels like the International Space Station.

Enter researchers at the U.S. Naval Research Laboratory (NRL) that have received a U.S. patent for the Optical Orbital Debris Spotter. The small sensor can potentially provide additional data to complement existing debris models such as the Space Surveillance Network (SSN).

The Optical Orbital Debris Spotter is a compact, low power, low cost, local space debris detection concept that can be integrated into larger satellite designs, or flown independently on-board nano-satellite platforms.

Light sheet

According to a NRL press statement, the key idea of this concept is to form a permanently illuminated light sheet rather than scanning a beam. Doing so — to create a continuous light sheet – makes use of a collimated light source, such as a low power laser, and a conic mirror.

“When the flight path of an orbital debris object intersects the light sheet, the object will scatter the light, and a portion of that scattered light can be detected by a wide angle camera,” explains Christoph Englert, research physicist at NRL. Assimilating that data, the Spotter could divine the size, and shape information about the debris particle, he adds.

Clutter in the cosmos. Credit: Used with permission: Melrae Pictures/Space Junk 3D

Clutter in the cosmos.
Credit: Used with permission: Melrae Pictures/Space Junk 3D

Lots of litter

The Optical Orbital Debris Spotter would be a busy piece of equipment.

The SSN now tracks more than 16,000 objects orbiting Earth. About five percent of those being tracked are functioning payloads or satellites, eight percent are rocket bodies, and about 87 percent are debris and/or inactive satellites, notes NRL.

This newly patented idea is a small, stand-alone sensor system and could also be deployed within a debris cloud to provide in-situ measurements of debris density, distribution and evolution.

“Using a dedicated nano-satellite, or CubeSat, the system could be used for the gathering of more comprehensive debris field data,” Englert says.

These data sets could then be incorporated into global space tracking tools such as the Space Surveillance Network (SSN), NASA’s Orbital Debris Engineering Model (ORDEM), and the European Space Agency’s Optical Ground Station.

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