A cleaner space

A research team at SouthamptonUniversity’s School of Engineering Sciences has developed a technique that could help identify space debris for removal from orbit.

Examples of such debris include manmade satellites and rocket bodies that no longer serve a useful purpose in space. Many are travelling at speeds of approximately 10km/s and can produce even more debris if involved in a collision.

The team’s approach involves using the mathematics of network theory to distinguish the pieces of debris with the greatest potential to cause damage. The theory identifies objects based on the number of links they have with other objects and their importance in the overall structure of the network.

Dr Hugh Lewis of the university’s School of Engineering Sciences, said: ‘Previous modelling studies have suggested that even if no new satellites were launched, the number of objects orbiting the Earth will continue to increase as a result of predicted collisions between existing objects.

‘For this reason, it is important to identify debris objects at risk of collision when making plans to ‘clean up’ space. Objects need to be ranked according to the risk they pose so that they may be chosen for removal, and this is what our research aims to do.’

The findings were presented at the 59th International Astronautical Congress (IAC) in Glasgow in October 2008.