Space junk is becoming such a major problem that if it continues to accumulate at present rates, it will be impossible to launch anything into space in 100 years' time, according to researchers at The University of Western Australia.
Ranging from tiny chips of paint to big parts of spent booster rockets, thousands of pieces of space debris threaten the satellites on which we depend for almost every aspect of daily life from telecommunications, weather reports, security and navigation, to information about mineral deposits.
A UWA team led by Associate Professor David Coward is part of a global effort to track space junk, using robotic astronomical telescopes, and warn the owners of satellites to alter their orbit until the threat has passed.
In particular, UWA is collaborating with French astronomers at the CNRS-Observatoire de Haute Provence in France in a project that links UWA's impressive Zadko Telescope to robotic telescopes in France and Chile, called TAROT, to form a global array that scans the sky for debris.
Zadko Telescope Systems Manager, 27 year-old Dr Myrtille Laas-Bourez, is part of UWA's School of Physics and the $100 million UWA-based International Centre for Radio Astronomy Research.
Dr Laas-Bourez, an engineer who describes herself as a ‘celestial mechanic', worked on the TAROT robotic telescope space debris program in France, daily cataloguing the junk in real-time and informing the French Space Agency of hazards in the same orbits as its satellites.
Detecting space debris is also a priority of the Australian Federal Government, with a recent Senate report stating that Australia needs to urgently engage in space research to protect its space-based assets.