Space garbage men: Tracking the movement and spin of orbiting space junk

When we are in the process of colonising space, or even getting out of our Earth’s orbit, there will be a danger of the rubbish circling the planet damaging spacecraft or even stopping us getting away from the planet.

Previously NASA has said that the amount or trash that is in orbit around the world includes more than 500,000 objects. 

It has even gone as far as to say that we have lost control of the environment. 

Now researchers from MIT, in a DARPA funded project, have concocted an algorithm tested at the International Space Station that will help the space rubbish collectors of the future to do their jobs.

It allows them to track the movement and rotation of an object in space.

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 algorithm uses only visual information, and was deployed using MIT’s SPHERES project, which is focused on using herds of volleyball-sized satellites to help humans on future space missions.

When testing the algorithm in space, one SPHERES satellite spun in place while another photographed it.

The algorithm needs to use trial and error to build up a visualisation of the object and accurately be able to track and predict its movements.

When developed further, it may be able to help humans – or robots – be able to capture the rubbish that is circling the Earth.


The issue of how we can tackle space debris is one that has been discussed for many years and although a situation like that in the movie Gravity is probably unlikely to occur, the issue still needs to be tackled.

In 2009 a DARPA study said that “debris mitigation alone will not be sufficient to prevent a continual increase in the number of debris objects.”

Japan’s space agency JAXA was set to launch a spacecraft with a giant magnetic net to collect debris orbiting the earth.

Tackling the issue of space trash in the Earth’s orbit is crucially important as if it keeps on growing then it could prevent the launch of future space missions and also endanger working satellites that are in orbit.

If it is not dealt with then it may also give rise to the Kessler Syndrome, a theory created in the late 1970s by Donald Kessler, which says that once derbris in orbit collides it will create a chain reaction of more debris and then more collisions.

Featured image and image two courtesy of NASA

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