Garbage flying around the Earth

Space junk radar in development at JAXA that can detect dangerous micro-debris

Image credit: European Space Agency

Development has started on a radar designed to detect space debris as small as 10 centimetres by Japan’s Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA).

The radar should help spacecraft and satellites avoid collisions with junk that has accumulated in Earth’s orbit due to previous launches.

JAXA hopes to include the new radar on spacecraft from 2023 and it will also be paired with another, separate radar designed by Japan’s defence ministry.

Due to the high speeds that space debris reaches when caught in Earth’s orbit, even tiny particles can prove to be extremely damaging. In 2016 a significant crack appeared (pictured) in a window on the International Space Station (ISS) from what was thought to be a speck of paint travelling at extreme speeds.

A 7mm-diameter circular chip was created from a particle that was thought to be just a few thousandths of a millimetre across.

Scientists fear that if the space debris continues to worsen, humans may have to abandon any thoughts of space travel or satellite launches as it will be too dangerous.

JAXA currently uses a radar system deployed in Okayama Prefecture to monitor space debris that travels over Japan in low Earth orbit at altitudes from several hundred to 2,000 kilometres. However, the current system only covers debris that is 1.6 metres across or larger. It cannot track particles of about 10 centimetres, which comprise the majority of space debris.

The new radar will be roughly 200 times more sensitive that the current one.

Just last week Nasa attached a space debris sensor to the outside of the ISS to allow researchers to track space debris impacts in real time.

There are currently more than 1,000 working satellites in orbit around Earth which are relied on for long-distance communications, internet services, navigation and other services.

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