Australasian Science: Australia's authority on science since 1938

Radio Stations Track Space Junk

By Stephen Luntz

Signals from radio stations are being used to locate space debris that threatens satellites.

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The demonstration of the viability of the project is the first success from the Murchison Widefield Array (MWA), a precursor project to the Square Kilometre Array (SKA).

The inspiration for the project came when Australian National University PhD student Ben McKinley measured signals from FM radio stations reflected by the Moon. He used these observations to calculate the signal strength at nearby stars, and therefore the size of telescope needed to detect equivalent sources on extra-solar planets.

“It turns out the SKA in its final form would be able to assuming similar frequencies and technologies to ours were used, but the MWA is not in the ballpark,” says Dr Stephen Tingay, Director of the MWA at Curtin University.

The idea inspired further thinking, including the realisation that the same signals are bouncing off much smaller objects. “The MWA was designed to be the most powerful low frequency radio telescope in the Southern Hemisphere, and this was our chance to test its capabilities,” Tingay says. Having detected ten pieces of space junk simultaneously, the MWA also proved its value covering huge areas of the sky at once.

Commercial and ABC radio transmitters are more powerful than anything astronomers could afford to create themselves. “In terms of what is being broadcast it doesn’t matter if it’s talk or music,” Tingay says. More...

The full text of this article can be purchased from Informit.