A team comprising of members from Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) and Physical Research Laboratory (PRL) are working on setting up an observatory to track space junk or space debris caused by satellites. The observatory will give ISRO the capability to better handle future space missions that involve re-entry of modules back into the earth’s atmosphere, and to track space debris. The facility will be named Guru Shikhar Observatory and be built in Mount Abu, Rajasthan.
The facility will be housing a one-metre wide telescope with carefully crafted optics and back-end instruments assembled by ISRO’s Laboratory for Electro-Optics Systems (LEOS) in Bengaluru. The observatory is categorised as the Electro-Optical Deep Space Surveillance (EODSS) system. Its mandate will be to track space debris consisting of inactive satellites, electronic parts of instruments, leftovers from rocket launch and other such junk.
Long Durational Exposure Facility, built by NASA was the first observatory which monitored space debris and catalogued them. Results from the facility showed that there are 21,000 pieces of debris larger than a softball orbiting the Earth. They travel at speeds up to 17,500 mph, fast enough for a relatively small piece to damage a satellite or a spacecraft. There are 500,000 pieces of debris that are of the size of a marble or larger and many millions of pieces that are so small they can’t be tracked.
There have been at least 12 instances when Indian satellites’ path had to be redirected out of suspected collision with space junk. The data used by India to make sure that the satellites remain safe was provided by International Space Debris Data and Catalogue maintained by NASA. But after this observatory is up and running, India will generate its own data to manoeuvre satellites out of harm’s way.
Some of the countries which have space junk monitoring systems installed are USA, Norway, Germany and Spain. Facilities built in these countries supply information on debris locations to nations which don’t generate such data.
India’s space capacity of 34 working satellites is barely half of what the country needs and is severely limited to meet increasing demands from the centre, states and businesses. Over 60 central departments and all state governments are demanding satellite-based solutions for governance. ISRO’s satellites for communication, earth observation and navigation can help connect people. It can tell fishermen where to find fish, forecast crop yields, locate people or places and help governments govern and plan projects.
ISRO has envisaged that launching 12 to 18 satellites each year will bridge this gap. Thus the observatory will be very beneficial to track space junk which has become a global problem and expected to attain dangerous proportions in the coming years.