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Searching for “Space Junk” in Paradise

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Posted August 12, 2016

Located halfway between Brazil and Africa with clear skies and tropical temperatures, Ascension Island sounds like a perfect vacation destination. However, you won’t find many tourists there. In fact, NASA scientists are required to take two military training courses, fill out several detailed forms, undergo a medical exam and get approval from both the British and U.S. military before they can travel to this British overseas territory to conduct official business.

It may then come as a surprise that NASA installed a brand new telescope there.

The John Africano NASA/Air Force Research Laboratory Orbital Debris Observatory houses the 20 thousand pound Meter Class Autonomous Telescope (MCAT) on Ascension Island. It is operated remotely by scientists in the Orbital Debris Program based in the Astromaterials Research and Exploration Science (ARES) Division, which performs physical science research at NASA’s Johnson Space Center.

The John Africano NASA/Air Force Research Laboratory Orbital Debris Observatory houses the 20 thousand pound Meter Class Autonomous Telescope (MCAT) on Ascension Island. Credits: Dr. Susan Lederer, NASA

The John Africano NASA/Air Force Research Laboratory Orbital Debris Observatory houses the 20 thousand pound Meter Class Autonomous Telescope (MCAT) on Ascension Island.
Credits: Dr. Susan Lederer, NASA

Although the location may seem a bit strange, there is a strong reason for choosing it.

“We selected Ascension Island for the location of the MCAT because it has great infrastructure, strong security and favorable trade winds,” Lisa Pace, the deputy chief of the ARES Division and former MCAT project manager, said. “But, the primary reason we chose it is because it covers a ‘blind spot’ in coverage that the Ground-Based Electro-Optical Deep Space Surveillance (GEODSS) assets, which track debris around the world, were missing.”

MCAT’s construction and installation was completed in June 2015, and now the 1.3 meter (51-inch diameter) telescope’s goal is to hunt in this blind spot for orbital debris, which is comprised of human-made objects in orbit about the Earth that no longer serve a useful function. With that blind spot removed, MCAT will give NASA scientists as well as all spacecraft operators around the world a more comprehensive view of orbital debris.

MCAT’s unique mount allows it to search for orbital debris in geosynchronous, low and medium Earth orbits. Credits: Dale Murrey, Royal Air Force

MCAT’s unique mount allows it to search for orbital debris in geosynchronous, low and medium Earth orbits.
Credits: Dale Murrey, Royal Air Force

The telescope is part of the ARES Division’s Orbital Debris Program Office, whose mission is to determine the total amount of orbital debris and predict the risk it poses to spacecraft, including the International Space Station.

“Space debris poses a great risk to operating spacecraft, both manned and unmanned, so understanding this environment to avoid debris and design shields to protect from this debris is critical to NASA’s ability to operate in space safely,” Pace said.

The ARES Division will operate MCAT from JSC, combining the division’s unique mix of remote sensing expertise, orbital debris knowledge and experience gleaned from fifty years of science operations in support of human and robotic space missions.

With over seven thousand metric tons and millions of individual pieces of “space junk” orbiting the Earth, this skill set will be needed to protect satellite and spacecraft. However, doing so can be a challenge: Orbital debris can move between one and 10 times faster than a bullet fired from a sniper rifle, so even a small piece can damage or possibly destroy satellites or spacecraft on impact.

MCAT has a unique feature that allows it to track these fast-moving debris: a double-horseshoe mount.

“MCAT’s very unique mount, designed specifically for fast tracking of debris at low latitudes smoothly through the zenith, is one of the only two telescopes like it in the world,” Susan Lederer, Ph.D., MCAT principal investigator and optical lead for NASA’s Orbital Debris Program Office, said. “Most telescopes are incapable of doing what MCAT can do, and that gives NASA a distinct advantage in characterizing the debris environment around Earth.”

This mount allows MCAT to search for debris in geosynchronous, low and medium Earth orbits, which will help the ARES Division continue to create models of the debris environment to guide the planning of space missions.

Ultimately, it may be difficult to imagine that a beautiful island in the middle of nowhere is home to a NASA telescope that monitors “space junk.” However, Ascension Island and its role in the Orbital Debris Program Office are key to the preparation of future space missions with the goal of ensuring that satellites, spacecraft and the environment surrounding Earth are protected for years to come.

Source: NASA

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