With increasing activity in space, large amounts of man-made materials created by accidents or the breakup of rockets exist at altitudes of 240 miles to 480 miles. This debris, broken into tiny pieces less than four inches in size, is too small to detect through existing techniques, such as radar, yet large enough to punch holes through satellites, spacecraft, or spacewalking astronauts.
Scientists at Los Alamos National Laboratory are developing a ground-based optical system that can detect the debris. The system combines a modest, six-inch telescope, state-of-the-art detector, and novel computer software to pick out the faint trace of reflected light left by the debris orbiting overhead. The system tracks the particles of light reflected by the debris, plotting their latitude and longitude. Together, the data can be used to identify the track made by a small piece of debris as it crosses the telescope's field of view. The researchers will use the system to determine how much of this clutter surrounds the earth and thereby estimate what sort of hazard it presents to earth-orbiting missions. They hope to field a demonstration system later this year.