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Space Debris Modeling

To compliment multi-billion dollar efforts for space debris removal, scientists at USRA's Research Institute for Advanced Computer Science in collaboration with NASA and Stanford University have developed a low-cost approach for debris-debris and debris-satellite collision avoidance. The approach involves a new technique for collision avoidance by maneuvering debris using medium power ground-based lasers, and improved techniques for accurately predicting debris-debris conjunctions.

For collision avoidance, the idea is simply that when two pieces of debris are predicted to collide (or have a high probability of collision) then 1-2 days in advance of the collision event, a laser, shining through a 1-m class telescope, is used to maneuver one of the debris pieces using just photon momentum pressure. The resulting small shift in velocity is enough that by the time of the collision they miss by some distance of order 1 km. For this, a model for taking trajectory data for each debris object and propagating it for a few days with certain accuracy to predict conjunctions is required. The existing tracking data is not sufficiently accurate for this task.

For improved prediction of debris-related conjunctions, we have developed an algorithm that improves the accuracy of the predicted position utilizing historical data (an article on this recently appeared in the journal Advances in Space Research). In addition, we have developed code to allow the parallelization of the propagation and conjunction analysis for the whole catalogue of debris using the supercomputer at the NASA Ames Research Center.