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Patent for Navy small space debris tracker

The U.S. Navy has been given a patent for a device to detect and predict the trajectory of small debris in space.

By Richard Tomkins
A NASA image of space debris orbiting the Earth.
A NASA image of space debris orbiting the Earth.

WASHINGTON, May 22 (UPI) -- A U.S. Navy device that detects small debris in space and provides data on their trajectory has been granted a U.S. patent.

The Optical Orbital Debris Spotter from the Naval Research Laboratory is compact in size, uses low power and can be integrated into larger satellite designs or flown independently onboard nano-satellite platforms, the Navy said.

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The device concept is the creation of a continuous, permanent light sheet by using a collimated light source, such as a low-power laser. All particles intersecting the light sheet will scatter the light from the source, independent of the time of intersection with the plane of the light sheet.

"When the flight path of an orbital debris object intersects the light sheet, the object will scatter the light, and a portion of that scattered light can be detected by a wide angle camera," said Dr. Christoph Englert, research physicist at NRL. "The knowledge of the light sheet geometry and the angles of the scattering event with respect to the camera, derived from the signal location on the sensor, allow the determination of the intersection point, and possibly even size, and shape information about the debris particle.

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"Using a dedicated nano-satellite, or CubeSat, the system could also be used for gathering of more comprehensive debris field data. Losing the satellite at some point during the mission by a fatal collision could be considered a justifiable risk in comparison to the odds of getting unprecedented data sets for debris field characterization and modeling."

Data sets collected by the sensor concept could be incorporated into modeling and tracking software for incorporation into a global space tracking tools such as the Space Surveillance Network, NASA's Orbital Debris Engineering Model, and the European Space Agency's Optical Ground Station.

"Man-made debris orbiting the Earth continues to increase at an alarming rate - with objects smaller than one centimeter exceeding 100 million," the Navy said. "The effects of collisions occurring at orbital velocities approaching speeds of several kilometers (miles) per second can range from minor to catastrophic. In Low Earth Orbit, where many space-based assets reside, small debris objects are of concern not only due to their abundance, but because they are often difficult to track or even detect on a routine basis."

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