Scots scientists to lead space clear-up project
SCOTS scientists are to lead a multimillion pound international research project to explore cleaning up outer space and finding ways of deflecting asteroids.
Strathclyde University, already home to Scotland’s largest space engineering centre, will head the pioneering £3.2 million Stardust programme examining how to remove junk such as fragments of defunct satellites which risk damaging functioning satellites if they collide.
Researchers will also investigate how to deflect asteroids which could have “potentially devastating consequences” if they crash into earth.
The project is the first of its kind and is funded by the European Commission and due to start early next year.
The scientists will research ideas such as using laser beams to vaporise small fragments of debris, and catching larger pieces with robotic arms, nets or extending tentacles. Debris range from pieces the size of a fingernail to those weighing a few tons. Those which could not be burnt in space would be ditched in the ocean or on the ground. Another possibility is using a “graveyard orbit” not used by any country or company for space technology purposes.
Asteroids could be dealt with by attaching an engine to push them away, or finding ways to break them up.
The four-year project will be led by Dr Massimilano Vasile of the university’s department of mechanical and aerospace engineering.
Dr Vasile said Stardust, will train the next generation of scientists, engineers and policy makers to deal with the debris which has built up since space exploration began in the 1960s.
“Asteroids and space debris represent a significant hazard for space and terrestrial assets and could have potentially devastating consequences for our planet.
“The two share a number of commonalities. Both are uncontrolled objects whose orbit is deeply affected by a number of gravitational and non-gravitational interactions, both have an irregular shape and an uncertain attitude motion, and both are made of inhomogeneous materials that can respond unexpectedly to a deflection action.
“Such a significant multidisciplinary technical challenge, with real societal benefit for the future, represents a compelling topic for a training network. I am delighted that we have secured this level of funding and we are looking forward to pushing the boundaries of current technologies and developing the next generation of space experts.”
Its 14 partners include the European Space Agency, national research centres in France and Italy and three companies: Astrium, Deimos and Telespazio.
Seven academic institutions are also involved, including the University of Southampton.
Professor Sir Jim McDonald, the university’s principal, said Stardust would give the university the opportunity to make significant advances to help protect the planet.
“To be selected to lead this international area of space research is an excellent achievement and demonstrates the strength of our research capabilities and our success in working with partners in academia and industry.”
Alastair Allan MSP, minister for science, said: “It is fantastic that the University of Strathclyde has been selected to lead this work. I am pleased to see Scotland leading the way in an important field of science.”
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