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Space Debris January 2018

The technical lecture on Space Debris was delivered by Dr Stephen Hobbs to an assortment of Royal Aeronautical Society and IMechE members that had all but filled the lecture hall at the University of Chester.

After a brief personal introduction, Dr Hobbs commenced the space debris journey with an overview of the classifications of geocentric orbits, including their different purposes, immense scale (as far out as ~35,000km!) and the incredible amount of space craft & debris that occupies them. Despite the vast quantities and ludicrous speeds, through a global collective effort, we have a surprisingly accurate ability to track these articles. Unfortunately, not all space debris is created equally, and is therefore managed differently. The larger tracked items can be actively avoided, while the smaller (<1cm) unknown bits are usually mitigated by debris shields, however, it’s the larger unknown and un-traceable items (1-10cm) that pose the biggest risk to active satellites and through traffic. 

Dr Hobbs continued by explaining the dire straits we’re headed for unless appropriate action is taken, by introducing the notion of the Kessler Syndrome; whereby collisions between items of debris in turn produce more debris that continues to collide with other debris until the orbits become inhabitable and it’s unsafe to even leave our atmosphere. All of which isn’t helped by certain nations intentionally destroying satellites to prove a point!

Just for good measure, Dr Hobbs described how we can’t even rely on time to help tidy up our space mess, by quantifying how long items at the different altitudes will take to naturally fall out of orbit and burn up. Let’s just say, if early civilisations had pulled their evolutionary fingers out, formed a space agency and launched a satellite into a geostationary orbit, it would still be up there today! 

However, Dr Hobbs reassured us that there is still hope, using historical trends of space debris levels and projected trajectories, to show that with correct regulation of space activity and limits to operational lifespans, it is possible to regain control and ensure the viability of future orbital missions. The talk was brought to a close as he touched on a range of space debris management solutions that are currently being explored, including two projects that he has been a part of and are currently in orbit awaiting deployment this year.

Dr Hobbs finished by opening the floor to questions, and was presented with a plethora of solutions from an audience full of Engineers and enthusiasts alike, eager to contribute to resolving the issue of space debris.

Overall, Space Debris was an enthralling and well delivered technical lecture, which made effective use of fascinating graphics and animations, and provided a multifaceted insight into the subject area.

 



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