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Aussie space junk effort

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A new $150 million Australian research centre is being set up to target space junk in the earth’s orbit.

The Collaborative Research Centre (CRC) for Space Environment Management, based at Mt Stromlo Observatory near Canberra, will bring together work by researchers and industry groups from Australia and overseas.

The centre will develop ways to track and remove more than 300,000 pieces of space debris currently in orbit.

CRC chief executive Dr Ben Greene says debris is a real problem for satellites and space-craft.

“A catastrophic avalanche of collisions that would quickly destroy all satellites is now possible,” he said.

Dr Greene says accurately tracking orbiting material will be the first challenge for researchers.

“Our initial aim is to reduce the rate of debris proliferation due to new collisions,” he said.

“There is now so much debris that it is colliding with itself, making an already big problem even bigger.”

The Australian National University’s Research School of Astronomy and Astrophysics will also be involved in the project.

ANU Professor Matthew Colless says the centre hopes to find strategies for dealing with space junk like those seen in the Oscar-winning film Gravity.

Professor Colless says he hopes lasers will eventually be used to remove smaller pieces of space debris.

“If we increase the power of the lasers that we have, to actually gently push small bits of space junk, that makes them fall back to earth more rapidly and burn up harmlessly in the atmosphere,” he said.

The multi-million dollar centre is funded by a range of local and international organisations from the telecommunications, military and space industries, as well as the Australian Government.

The research will be largely focussed at Mt Stromlo Observatory where a series of Australian government, university and industry-lead programs have led to major breakthroughs in space debris tracking over the past decade.

CRC chief operating officer Rod Drury says there have been strenuous efforts in many countries to develop space debris mitigation technology over the past decade.

“The CRC brings together, for the first time, leading debris mitigation programs from around the world to create a team with the required critical mass of researchers, technology, funding and equipment,” he said.

The centre’s work is due to begin in mid-2014.