GOLDEN, Colo. (CBS4) – Students at the Colorado School of Mines are taking on a problem some of the world’s greatest minds have yet to solve. How to manage the growing threat of space debris.
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 17,500 mph, fast enough for a relatively small piece of orbital debris to damage a satellite or a spacecraft.
While there is work being done to de-orbit satellites that are no longer functioning, as well as protocols in place for threats of other large debris, there is not much research when it comes to managing the small stuff.
“All of the orbital debris is going seven times the speed of a shotgun shell so you need to have ways to physically make contact with these small pieces of debris to change the trajectory,” said Brianne Treffner, a senior in engineering physics at the School of Mines.
Thanks to a program called RockSat-X, Treffner was able to convince the School of Mines to put together a team to figure out a way to do this.
The RockSat-X program is an extracurricular program culminating in a capstone project, dedicated to designing and launching meaningful scientific experiments in space. It’s done with the help of NASA and the Colorado Space Grant Consortium to give students low-cost access to space.
“Through the course of a year, you design, build and fly your payload,” Treffner continued. “it’s a super big honor because this is the furthest a Mines student project has ever gone.”
Over the last year the team, comprised of 14 students, have been working on three autonomous experiments to manage space junk. All will be contained in a payload scheduled to launch this summer to an altitude of more than 90 miles.
Each experiment serves the same purpose; redirect debris without coming into contact with it. Despite the small size, it can still cause serious damage.
In 2016, a small piece of debris, no more than a few thousandths of a millimeter across, caused a 7mm-wide dent in a window on the space station.
The methods behind the three student experiments include: electrostatic deflection, magnetic deflection, and laser momentum transfer. An extensible camera boom and communication array will validate scaling up the design for satellite mounting.
In order to successfully perform the experiments, the payload will also include simulated debris.
“We’re going to be using aluminum foil which is a pretty good simulation of what you’ll find up there because it’s an extremely thin, extremely light material and that’s a lot of the space debris that you find,” said Bradley Jesteadt, a senior in mechanical engineering at the School of Mines.
Jesteadt knows the experiments work on the ground, but there are a few conditions they can’t replicate when it comes to space.
“The biggest difference is really, that like, when it’s up there, it’s all going to be automated and we won’t be there to make sure make sure everything is working the way it’s expected to.”
The team still has several months to make improvements and is confident they will see results which will could mean broader research into their methods.
“We want to show that we can do this physically with the real small objects, but then we also are doing the math in the reports and stuff to show that you could scale this up to larger things if you had more payload space and if you had more time to work,” said Jesteadt.
The students have spent countless hours perfecting their experiments and while a successful experiment is priority, the experience and anticipated launch? Worth it alone.
“To be able to hear the roar and to just feel it and all that? I’ve never been able to witness a rocket launch in person so it’s gonna be a real neat experience for the first time,” Said Jesteadt.
While the mission is low-cost, it’s not free. The team is just shy of its $4000 fundraising goal. Click here to learn how you can support them and more about the project in general.