The Malta Independent 26 February 2024, Monday
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Maltese scientists funded to protect satellites from space junk

Sunday, 19 March 2017, 13:06 Last update: about 8 years ago

A unique multi-pixel instrument capable of detecting space debris in orbit is being developed by Maltese scientists following a funding agreement signed between Malta and Italy.

This debris — space waste that mostly consists of discarded man-made objects such as old satellites, tools and spent-up rocket stages — numbers in the hundreds of thousands, and each piece of ‘junk’ is capable of producing considerable damage to operational satellites.


“Those familiar with the film Gravity know all too well the havoc caused by space debris hitting the International Space Station. The instrument we’re working on is so precise that it’ll enable satellites to dodge a catastrophic crash with space litter,” astrophysicist Kristian Zarb Adami said.

The agreement, signed between the Institute of Space Sciences and Astronomy at the University of Malta and the Instituto Nazionale di Astrofisica and the Agenzia Spaziale Italiana, enables ISSA scientists to complete their work.

Dr Alessio Magro and Mr Denis Cutajar have designed a data processing system capable of detecting and tracking many pieces of space debris simultaneously. This multi-pixel detector is one of the first such systems operating in Europe and ISSA is planning to wrap up this project by the end of the year.

This system, which once completed will be placed on the Northern Cross in Bologna, has been developed to electronically track the debris without having to slew expensive radio dishes at fast speeds.

Prof. Zarb Adami, director of ISSA, said that space debris was becoming more and more challenging as countries launched more satellites for communication, navigation and earth observation.

According to NASA, more than 500,000 pieces of debris, or “space junk”, are tracked as they orbit the Earth. They all travel at speeds up to 17,500mph, fast enough for a relatively small piece of orbital debris to damage a satellite or a spacecraft.

There are no garbage collectors in space and the increasingly high level of uncollected waste orbiting the Earth increases the potential danger to all space vehicles, but especially to the International Space Station, space shuttles and other spacecraft with humans aboard.

Launching and positioning a satellite today costs roughly €1 billion, so the project of  the Maltese scientists is crucial to accurately track satellite-destroying junk. The ability to track and more importantly predict the position of space junk allows for the slight modification of these satellites’ orbits to avoid deadly collisions.

The agreement will also provide opportunities for scholarships for Maltese students keen on pursuing space sciences and astronomy in the future, Prof. Zarb Adami said.

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