In 1957, the Russian satellite Sputnik, the first human object to enter orbit, moved by itself in what is known as a “low orbit”; That is, 2000 km from Earth or less. Currently, most satellites and space stations orbit there. But they are not the only ones It is estimated that there are tens of thousands of objects and parts of various sizes orbiting in this range of distance around the planet, usually at a speed of eight kilometers per second (27,400 km/h).thus completing one lap every 90 minutes.
The problem is that those Low Earth Orbits (LEOs, according to their English acronym for Low Earth orbit) became crowded quickly. To try to avoid collisions, an American company called Leolabs is creating a radar network that tracks objects larger than 10 cm and It gives an alert signal to start corresponding maneuvers when there is danger. The last one, which with all the devices occupies a plot of land the size of a football field, is being installed in Tierra del Fuego.
“The instrument monitors all objects in low Earth orbit and works in coordination with a global network of about a dozen similar instruments we have in different countries, such as Portugal, the United States, Australia, Costa Rica and New Zealand,” says Darren McKnight, the company’s chief scientific officer. We take measurements, we warn when one approaches operational satellites and we know how to keep them safe“.
The service is provided to both government agencies and the private sector. “We work for the US government, but also with the Japanese government and various companies,” McKnight details. More than 60% of the commercial satellites in orbit get their traffic information from our company“.
it is expected that In low orbits there are more than 20,000 objects over 10 centimeters in diameter, which is the smallest size that radar can “see”, but only 6,000 are operational.. “The satellites do a very good job of looking after themselves, but we know that all this garbage is flying around and we have to watch out when they get too close to do maneuvers to avoid collisions,” says the scientist.
The location in the extreme south of the country, at 45 degrees south latitude, is particularly favorable, as it is the area where most of the “binding” processes occur. McKnight explains that “potential occurrences do not occur uniformly throughout space, but particularly between 35 and 55 degrees north or south latitude. Argentina is a great place because it is located in a hemisphere where we have very few radars. Also, if you think it’s one of those cameras you put in corners to monitor traffic, it’s a busy intersection.. It’s a strategic location to have a good view of the many styles that are going on.”
Although he does not want to specify the cost of the equipment, McKnight (an expert in data collection) confirms that they have developed an innovative design that allows them to be produced significantly more economically than their predecessors. And The unique fact is that they do not need employees to operate them. The one in New Zealand was built just before the pandemic began. For over 2 years we hadn’t had anyone on site and it worked fine. It’s amazing – he’s surprised. Like I said, they are like traffic cameras, but they are very high technology, very low maintenance, and very high reliability. It’s a great combination.”
They look at things Predict their trajectory relative to each other about five days in advance Determine a new orbit for vulnerable equipment. “We issue millions of watches and warnings, and the closer we get to actual pairing, the more accurate our results will become,” says McKnight. Five days ago we would monitor it maybe two or three times a day and then sometimes the probability of a collision would increase and other times it would decrease. The probability may increase or decrease according to the physical condition.”
“Radars are our best tools for tracking things. It’s not just weather, like optical sensors, and they provide very accurate location information, “explains Diego Janchez, Master of Astronomy, Electrical Engineer and specialist in the 80-110 km layer of the atmosphere, at the frontier with space, Where you follow the footprints of “meteors”, grains of sand that constantly arrive, evaporate by friction and change their chemical composition.
Yanches, a NASA researcher who has been working in Tierra del Fuego for 14 years with a team from the National University of La Plata, details that at the moment, there are about 23,000 objects present or passing through the area that remain to be found. It is tracked – less than 2000 km, but there are a lot of things that are too small to detect.
The danger to the aircraft is real because although in many cases five days’ notice allows for course correction, in others (either because it is not designed that way or because it is no longer operational) it is unavoidable.
“First, [el rumbo] It is determined after the first few observations, maybe a day or so, but we like to watch it over time to understand how its orbits change,” says Jansch. But, When there is a major rupture of space, either due to an explosion or a collision, it is difficult to identify any object., and the “hack cloud” can take several weeks to spread out enough to classify them all. Measurements can be made very accurately, but the quality of long-term orbit prediction deteriorates the more we try to make predictions. This is because the Sun’s effect on the density of the atmosphere can only be partially predicted. When solar activity undergoes significant change, such as during a solar storm, prediction becomes more difficult until things “settle down” again.
Meanwhile, Leolabs’ plans call for new radars. “We have a lot of them who are very advanced,” McKnight concludes. We want to locate them in geographically dispersed locations around the world. Maybe we need one in Africa and one in northern Europe.… As with the one who finished settling in Argentina, we worked on it for a long time before making it public.”
“Future teen idol. Hardcore twitter trailblazer. Infuriatingly humble travel evangelist.”