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Space Junk On Collision Course Above Earth

Get your telescopes out, there could be a space junk collision over Earth.

An old space telescope, IRAS, is heading towards a decommissioned satellite, GGSE-4, with the possibility the two will collide at about 11am AEDT on Thursday.

Dr Brad Tucker, from the ANU Research School of Astronomy and Astrophysics, said the space junk is expected to come within 15 to 30 metres of each other.

"According to LeoLabs, which tracks space debris, the current prediction is a one in 100 chance of a collision,” he said.

“If they collide, they could produce tens of thousands of pieces of debris."

If the prediction is correct, the collusion is expected to happen over Pittsburgh in the U.S.

IRAS, or Infrared Astronomical Satellite, was launched in 1983 and was the first infrared space telescope. It operated for less than a year.

The satellite, GGSE-4, or Gravity Gradient Stabilization Experiment, was launched in 1967 by the U.S. Air Force as an experiment testing spacecraft design principles.

The U.S. Air Force and other organisations currently track space debris and objects as small as 10-15 centremetres wide.

But the Space Environment Research Centre (SERC), which is headquartered at the ANU Mount Stromlo campus, is working on a way to track debris in space that is as small as once centimetre.

SERC is working with ANU, RMIT University, industry EOS Space Systems, Lockheed Martin and other institutions on the project.

“The centre is also working on using high-powered infrared lasers to push these small bits out of their current orbit and prevent future collisions,” Dr Tucker said.

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Professor Céline d’Orgeville, is one of the researchers at ANU working on the laser guide star adaptive optics in an effort to make it safer to navigate around space junk.

“A laser guide star creates an artificial star in a part of the sky where there is no bright star and allows astronomers and space scientists to make scientific measurements,” she said.

“In addition to laser guide stars, we use lasers to measure where the satellite or the debris is in space, and predict where they’re going to be in future.

“Laser guide star adaptive optics were developed initially for ground-based astronomy, but it was realised the same technology can be used to address the problem of space debris.”

Feature Image: NASA