Central Coast university, military exploring ways to reduce space junk

Oct 18, 2019

Thousands of small objects are currently orbiting Earth, and while some are working satellites, a lot are junk. Cal Poly state university in San Luis Obispo has joined forces with the U.S. Department of Defense to monitor all the space debris—and come up with some ways to reduce it.

The agreement is the first between an academic institution and the U.S. Strategic Command, a combat arm of the Department of Defense. It’s mission is to “detect and deter attacks against the U.S. and its allies.”

Cal Poly joins more than 100 entities and foreign nations that will monitor all the objects in orbit.

John Bellardo is with Cal Poly’s computer science department.

“Most of those [objects] are not actually active satellites that are communicating data back,” Bellardo said. “Most end up being debris.”

Bellardo is the director of a Cal Poly laboratory called PolySat. PolySat is the home of CubeSats, which are small satellites partially invented at Cal Poly. The university has sent several into space. Bellardo said the lab is a multi-disciplinary program of about 70 students, who will track all the debris with the goal of keeping it from crashing into Cal Poly’s CubeSats and other active spacecraft.

“There have been a few spacecraft that have collided with each other," Bellardo said. "Whenever that happens, it puts out a huge debris field."

In 2009 two U.S. and Russian satellites collided.

“It caused an enormous debris field," said Colonel Scott Brodeur, who commands the 614th Air and Space Operations Center at the Central Coast's Vandenberg Air Force Base. He spoke to KCBX News during a 2018 tour of a new joint operations center at Vandenberg. "We track almost every one of those space objects."

The Combined Space Operations Center is part of the U.S. Strategic Command. Brodeur said there are about 23,000 pieces of debris in Earth's orbit right now that the center monitors. Roughly 3,000 are from when China blew up one of its satellites in 2007. 400 more were added when India blew up one of its satellites back in April of this year.

“There’s more debris up there than active spacecraft,” Bellardo said.

One goal of Cal Poly’s PolySat lab is to come up with ways to avoid collisions.

“We could potentially move the spacecraft around a little bit if we had thrusters and control of the spacecraft,” Bellardo said.

Thrusters are still on a wish list for Cal Poly right now. The university's CubeSats don’t have those capabilities yet, but Bellardo said they’re in the works.

Bellardo said another aim of the lab is to invent ways to reduce debris in space. More and more countries and companies are launching CubeSats into orbit, so Cal Poly is exploring the ramifications of all these objects in near-Earth space.

“There’s a lot of discussion, both within the group here at Cal Poly and with folks externally, about what is the responsible use of space,” Bellardo said.

Bellardo anticipates there will be some federal changes to space policy in the next few years. And while students think up ways to be more space-conscious, right now the best way to limit the amount of junk in space is to keep monitoring it all and ensure working spacecrafts and the debris already up there don’t crash into one another.