How close does a scene from a science fiction space Hollywood movie compare with reality? In the 2013 film Gravity, a space mission becomes deadly when a defunct satellite is hit by a missile strike, causing space debris. The space debris, traveling at high speed, typically several kilometers per second, can cause catastrophic damage. To characterize the potential threat of a collision similar to the one depicted in the movie, it is important to understand the dynamics of inactive satellites. An inactive satellite will present itself as a spinning, tumbling, and uncooperative target to any debris mitigation solution. Therefore, knowledge of the satellite’s rotation rate is crucial for the development of debris mitigation efforts and satellite harvesting programs, like the U.S. Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) Phoenix program, which aims to recycle pieces of retired satellites and use them to create new on-orbit assets.
Led by Senior Research Scientist, Dr. Rita Cognion, Oceanit has developed a technique to determine the dynamics of inactive satellites and the evolution of their dynamics through observation of their tumbling rates. In a recent International Astronautical Congress (IAC) paper, Dr. Cognion collaborated with Dr. Daniel Scheeres and Antonella Albuja to determine the actual rotation rates of inactive satellites near geosynchronous earth orbit. Their goal was to assess whether torques induced by solar radiation pressure could be responsible for change in rotation.
Few other observers are conducting similar longitudinal studies. With observations made over a period of months with the Oceanit-designed MStar telescope, we determined that the tumbling evolves over time and impacts to the rotation rate, which may have come from venting or small debris impacts.
This research is crucial in developing technologies to actively deal with space debris and avoid a scene right out of a Hollywood movie. To read the abstract of the IAC technical paper detailing the research on actual rotational rates of inactive satellites, click here. For more information on the comparison of fast and slow tumbling rates, contact Oceanit by telephone at (808) 531-3017 or via e-mail at [email protected].