The Earth is surrounded by thousands of pieces of space debris, including old satellites and even flakes of paint that have fallen off space vehicles. Southampton researchers are investigating the problems space debris may cause in the future and how to overcome them.
"As of September 2010, there were more than 22,000 objects larger than a tennis ball orbiting the Earth," says Dr Hugh Lewis, Senior Lecturer and member of the Astronautics Research Group. "Something this size and moving at orbital speeds of around 28,000 kilometres per hour has the same energy as several sticks of dynamite."
Hugh and his team are working on a number of studies to gain a better understanding of the growing space debris problem and to reduce the risks to future generations of spacecraft.
For example, computer modelling is being used to understand how manufacturers can reduce the vulnerability of spacecraft so that they can better withstand small debris collisions.
The team is looking into the difficulties that spacecraft manufacturers and operators face in mitigating against the risk of craft being hit by debris. Looking at the effectiveness of mitigation measures, the researchers also aim to create an environmental impact rating for spacecraft, to help communicate the issue of environmental good practice within the space industry.
Southampton has gained a global reputation for excellence in this field, built on a body of research which goes back more than a decade. Hugh says: "As a result of our expertise, we have been invited to represent the UK Space Agency on the leading, inter-governmental forum for discussing space debris (the Inter-Agency Space Debris Coordination Committee). We also represent the UK on the United Nations expert group tackling space debris issues. Through these bodies, our work is contributing to a better understanding of the benefits of cleaning up space debris."