Satellites safer thanks to space junk detecting telescopes

The unusually clear conditions at the South Africa-based station make it an excellent location for studying the skies. H. Fiedler

A telescope station has been opened in South Africa to help protect satellites from space debris, thanks to a joint venture by the University of Bern’s Astronomical Institute and the German Space Operations Center at Oberpfaffenhofen.

This content was published on April 22, 2017 - 13:00 and agencies/cl

The station is part of a series of telescopes dubbed SMARTnet (Small Aperture Robotic Telescope Networks), which are designed to ensure the safe operation of orbiting satellites by keeping watch for pieces of waste and debris in space.

The entirely automated station near Sutherland, South Africa, boasts two telescopes, two cameras and several computers. Thanks to the telescopes, researchers can collect data about the size, position and trajectory of objects over 30 cm in size.

The first image from the telescope station near Sutherland. The dashes of light come from stars, while the smaller points of light are reflected from objects in orbit. SMARTnet ™ -DLR/AIUB

This information should allow control centres to take evasive manoeuvres to protect orbiting satellites and keep them safe from collisions with floating debris. The station successfully produced its first images on April 3.

But avoiding unwelcome encounters with space junk isn’t the only way the telescopes will be useful: they will also be important for studying phenomena like solar luminosity and spectroscopy. The location of the station in South Africa provides perfect conditions for such work, as the region experiences some 300 clear nights per year.

The telescope station infrastructure was commissioned by Switzerland and Germany and is operated automatically from these two countries. The infrastructure was provided by the South African Astronomical Observatory (SAAO), and the facility was built with the support of the South African Space Agency, SANSA. To complete the SMARTnet network, other stations are already being planned in Australia and South America.

The University of Bern also has two other longstanding stations dedicated to space debris tracking: one based in Zimmerwald, canton Bern as part of the Swiss Optical Ground Station and Geodynamics Observatory, and the other on the island of Tenerife, with a telescope of the European Space Agency.

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