A new Method to Capture High-Resolution Images of Space Debris

“You can’t hit what you can’t see” is a common phrase in sports and was originally derived to describe baseball pitcher Walter Johnson’s fastball.  But the same goes for things with a more serious spin, such as some of the millions of pieces of debris floating in Low Earth Orbit (LEO).  Now, a team of researchers have come up with a new imaging system that will allow agencies and governments to closely track some of the debris that is cluttering LEO and potentially endangering humanity’s future expansion to the stars.

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How Long Will Space Junk Take to Burn Up? Here’s a Handy Chart

An artist's illustration of space junk. The problem isn't this bad yet, but it's getting worse year by year. Image: Tohoku University

If the Roman Empire had been able to launch a satellite in a relatively high Low Earth Orbit – say about 1,200 km (750 miles) in altitude – only now would that satellite be close to falling back to Earth. And if the dinosaurs had launched a satellite into the furthest geostationary orbit – 36,000 km (23,000 miles) or higher — it might still be up there today.

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Virgin Orbit Successfully Launches a Batch of Satellites From an Airplane

On Sunday, January 17th, Virgin Orbit conducted the second launch test of its LauncherOne rocket, which the company will use to deploy small satellites to orbit in the coming years. The mission (Launch Demo 2) went smoothly and validated the company’s delivery system, which consists of the rocket air launching from a repurposed 747-400 (named Cosmic Girl).

It also involved the successful deployment of 10 CubeSats which were selected by NASA’s Launch Services Program (LSP) as part of the agency’s CubeSat Launch Initiative (CSLI). The event began when Cosmic Girl took off from the Mojave Air and Space Port at approximately 10:50 A.M. PST (01:50 P.M. EST) and flew to a location about 80 km (50 mi) south of the Channel Islands in the Pacific Ocean.

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A New Satellite Is Going to Try to Maintain Low Earth Orbit Without Any Propellant

Staying afloat in space can be deceptively hard.  Just ask the characters from Gravity, or any number of the hundreds of small satellites that fall into the atmosphere in a given year.  Any object placed in low Earth orbit (LEO) must constantly fight against the drag caused by the small number of air molecules that make it up to that height.  

Usually they counteract this force by using small amounts of propellant.  However, smaller satellites don’t have the luxury of enough propellant to keep them afloat for any period of time. But now a team of students from the University of Michigan has launched a prototype satellite that attempts to stay afloat using a novel technique – magnetism.

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These Bizarre Cloud Patterns are von Kármán’s Vortices, Caused by the air Wrapping Around Tall Islands

This is an image of some of the islands that make up the nation of Cape Verde. While most in that group of ten islands are flat, some are very tall: Fogo, Santa Antão, and São Nicolau. Those three stand well above their compatriots, with Fogo reaching an altitude of 2,829 metres (9,281 feet).

The three tall volcanic islands sometimes interact with the wind to create von Kármán vortices, also called von Kármán vortex streets.

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A Steampunk Engine to Solve Your Satellite Woes!

In 1999, technicians from the California Polytechnic State University (Cal Poly) and Stanford University developed the specifications for CubeSat technology. In no time at all, academic institutions were launching CubeSats to conduct all manner of scientific research and validate new satellite technologies. Since 2013, the majority of launches have been conducted by commercial and private entities rather than academia.

Unfortunately, CubeSats have been held back until now because of a lack of good propulsion technology. In addition, there are concerns that with the proliferation of small satellites, Low Earth Orbit (LEO) will become overcrowded. Thanks to Howe Industries and a breakthrough engine design (known as the ThermaSat) that utilizes steam to generate propulsion, all of that could change very soon.

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The RAVN-X is a new Autonomous Aircraft Designed to Launch Small Satellites

In the past twenty years, one of the biggest developments to take place in the realm of space exploration has been the growth of the commercial space industry (aka. NewSpace). As a result of growing demand and declining costs, more companies are coming to the fore to offer launch services that are making space more accessible and cost-effective.

One such company is the space delivery services company Aevum, an Alabama-based startup specializing in Autonomous Launch Vehicles (AuLVs). On Dec. 3rd, 2020, Aevum unveiled their prototype vehicle, the RAVN-X. Once operational, this autonomous suborbital spaceplane will be able to send satellites and other small payloads to Low Earth Orbit (LEO) in just three hours.

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Iceberg A-68A is Turning. Will it Miss South Georgia Island After All?

A massive iceberg named A-68A is on a long journey through the seas near Antarctica. Though largely empty, those waters do host some islands, most notably South Georgia Island. In recent weeks satellite images showed the iceberg heading right for South Georgia.

That upcoming collision could have devastating consequences for wildlife that congregates on the island. But now, it looks like the collision might not happen.

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Satellites can see the pollution trails from individual ships

All hands have to be on deck if the world is going to tackle degradation, and one of the biggest emitters is also one of the least well known – international shipping.  A 2018 study estimated that pollution emitted from cargo ships resulted in 400,000 annual premature deaths from lung cancer and heart disease.  Many of those deaths resulted from the sulfur dioxide the ships were belching into the air.  Since the beginning of the year, sulfur dioxide has been capped at .5% of emissions, compared to 3.5% previously.  While the long term benefits of that emissions cap will take some time to appear, there’s another pollutant that could potentially be tackled in the near future: nitrogen dioxide.

Nitrogen dioxide (NO2) is one of the emissions from diesel engines, and has been strictly capped in the automotive market for a number of years.  While the shipping industry so far has escaped regulation, there is a strong possibility that restrictions may be coming in the near future.  Regulations in themselves are great, but they are useless if not enforced, and the open ocean is a notoriously difficult place to enforce them.  That difficult task might have just gotten easier, as scientists at the European Space Agency realized they can use satellite data they are already collecting to track the nitrogen dioxide emissions of individual ships on the open ocean.

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