Isro's Peenya facility to track space debris

NASA estimates that over 20,000 pieces of debris larger than a softball orbit the Earth. Illustration: NASA

To protect Indian satellites from collision with thousands of space debris, the Indian Space Research Organisation just got dead serious. On Friday, Isro made the first step to build a Space Situational Awareness Control Centre at Peenya.

Over 10,000 debris of 10-cm diameter or more float dangerously in the orbits, increasingly populated by satellites big and small launched by countries worldwide. Space situational awareness and management has become increasingly critical to tackle the heightened threat of these debris with operational spacecraft.

The control centre will be part of the Directorate of Space Situational Awareness and Management set up by Isro recently. The directorate’s mandate is to protect high-value space assets from space debris close approaches and collisions.

On the Centre’s radar will be inactive satellites, pieces of orbiting objects, near-earth asteroids and adverse space weather conditions. Data from inactive satellites will be tracked from indigenous observation facilities and analysed to generate information critical for active satellites, informs Isro.

Eventually, the control centre will be part of an ecosystem that boosts research into active space debris modelling and removal. Isro chairman K Sivan laid the foundation stone for the centre on Friday.

As a top space scientist explained to DH, the chances of a debris colliding with an active satellite is still remote. “There is still only a one-in-a-million chance. But both the low orbit of 500 to 2,000 km and the geostationary orbit of 36,000 km are getting populated fast with such debris, and will eventually become a dangerous junkyard,” he noted.

To avoid future collisions, the United Nations Committee on Peaceful Use of Outer Space (COPUOS) had come out with a set of guidelines. One of these is to actively track satellites nearing their life span and lower them to an orbit so that they are burnt on entry into the earth’s atmosphere.

The UN panel had urged the states and intergovernmental organisations to develop technologies to measure, monitor and characterise orbital and physical properties of space debris, determine the risk of collision and make trajectory adjustments to avoid it. The Isro centre will also follow these guidelines.

The National Aeronautics and Space Administration (Nasa) estimates that over 20,000 pieces of debris, larger than a softball, orbit the Earth. They travel at speeds up to 17,500 mph (over 28,000 kmph), fast enough for a relatively small piece of orbital debris to damage a satellite or a spacecraft.

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