Space junk and satellites: Watching near-Earth orbits from Moscow

October 30
Science and innovation

If the weather is fine in Moscow it is possible to see hundreds of things such as man-made space satellites high up in the sky responsible for maintaining mobile communications, updating online maps and monitoring the local traffic.

Experts, including those in Moscow, regularly watch hundreds of objects in near-Earth orbit. Discover from why scientists do this, where telescopes are installed and how to dispose of space junk properly.

The city actively supports scientific and innovative production facilities. Local authorities for instance have granted the status of the Radio Physics Technology Park to the Interstate Shareholding Corporation Vympel and Radio Physics PLC.  This status allows them to obtain regional tax breaks and land-lease preferences.

“Moscow’s technoparks aim to accommodate and support high-tech companies, including those implementing space research projects. Today, the city has two technoparks called RKS and Precision Laser Systems that are both affiliated with the Roscosmos State Corporation,” Alexei Fursin, Head of the City Department of Entrepreneurship and Innovative Development, noted.

Looking for near-Earth satellites

It takes just an ordinary-looking office, filled with computers and workers to make it possible to keep an eye on outer space. Konstantin Kuzovov, Deputy Head of Vympel’s Information-Analytical Centre for Monitoring Outer Space, has been working in such a place for over ten years. His team keeps a close eye on space objects, namely, those revolving around the Earth along circular and highly elliptical orbits, located hundreds and even thousands of kilometres above the ground. “We focus on man-made objects, including various communications, geodetic and other satellites,” Mr Kuzovov explained.

Satellite monitoring projects are motivated by several reasons. First of all, it is necessary to constantly be upgrading the database. 

Yevgeny Samarin,

“We will have trouble locating any specific object, unless we watch its orbit for a month and the second thing is, we need to check whether the orbits intersect so that we can send out a warning to avoid any possible collisions,” Mr Kuzovov added.

It is also possible to find out when any particular satellite overflies a preset location. If any object starts descending, experts are able to predict where the location will be when it hits the Earth.

Many of the workers create software, solve problems and compile algorithms. Most of them have graduated from the Moscow Institute of Physics and Technology. A lot of them join the team as part of their advanced training. Alexander Pigulevsky, an engineer with the Information-Analytical Centre, joined four years ago.

Yevgeny Samarin,

According to Alexander, he has enough time for research and he doesn’t have to deal with any boring practical jobs. He can write mathematical equations, analyse some phenomenon and conduct experiments. “I became interested in physics at school, and I decided that mathematics was more attractive after enrolling at the institute. I comprehended the awesome might of this science, and I found out what can be accomplished merely by comprehending logical mathematical ties. Programming is a mere tool, and the problems are far more interesting,” he enthused.

Space swarm

The building houses a situation centre where one can see experts in action. A large screen shows 3D data, including the Earth and various objects around it. Green dots denote operational satellites, and defunct satellites are represented by red dots. Grey dots denote space junk, including small meteors captured by the planet’s gravitational field or fragments of man-made spacecraft.

“This looks like a swarm; in reality, the distances are tremendous, and the satellites are quite small. Actually, the situation in orbit is not as bad as the model shows,” Mr Kuzovov explained.

Geostationary orbits contain the largest cluster of space objects, permanently located over one and the same point on the planet’s surface.

Tiny Cube-Sat-type spacecraft also orbit the Earth. It is very hard to spot these small satellites, designed for short-duration missions.

The company of famous entrepreneur and inventor Elon Musk is also planning to launch small satellites. About 12,000 satellites will provide everyone down below with broadband internet access. Over 500 spacecraft have already been placed in near-Earth orbits.

“This is certainly a good idea, but it can create problems for those watching the sky, celestial bodies and remote space. There will always be one satellite in every star sky sector (plus/minus two degrees),” Mr Kuzovov explained.

Sputnik One, the first space satellite, lifted off in 1957. According to experts, defunct satellites or junk now account for most near-Earth objects. Scientists all over the world are trying to invent a method for keeping space clean.

First of all, it is suggested installing a net and catching these objects like aquarium waste. However, this option is not very feasible because some objects are too fast, and they will simply tear the net apart. A space tug, the second option, would approach and capture a target and change its orbit. This technology which has already been tested is optimal for low-orbit space junk, and it helps extend the service life of geo-stationary satellites.

Near-Earth objects will eventually reenter the atmosphere and burn up. However, their fragments sometimes hit the planet’s surface, including in Russia and the United States. Objects in higher orbits will stay there for thousands of years, and the only reasonable scenario is to “catch” them one by one.

“In the long run, all space objects will become junk. An increase in the number of orbital objects increases the chance of a collision that would trigger off a chain reaction with numerous other collisions. Consequently, near-Earth space would be closed for many decades, and it would be impossible to launch any new spacecraft,” Mr Kuzovov added.

Watching the sky remote

Moscow and other cities are ablaze with lights that blot out the sky. This is why telescopes are installed far away from mega-cities, mostly in mountainous areas. The company’s telescopes are located in Blagoveshchensk, Ussuriisk, Kislovodsk, Krasnodar and other cities, as well as in Crimea.

Planned observations are downloaded each night. The devices are programmed to watch specific sectors on certain days and at preset time periods. Each day, experts have to specify a list of orbits, namely, the routes of space objects.

However, it is possible to watch the sky in Moscow. They have recently checked the new software of a telescope on the corporate office’s roof. This is an experimental facility for testing new inventions.

The telescope is enclosed in a white dome the interior of which resembles a submarine. This illusion disappears when a special observation slot opens. The platform can rotate along its axis.

“Although humans conducted all initial observations, we are now trying to involve fewer people in this project. Software rotates the dome and the telescope, takes images and processes them. The photos are then sent to a server. People are only needed to switch off the entire system and to close the dome if it starts raining,” Mr Kuzovov said.

These observations make it possible to watch the movement of man-made satellites. Specialists have also recorded meteors burning up in the atmosphere. If a space object or a man-made satellite starts approaching the Earth, experts will be able to locate a possible collision point.


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