Consumer — 14 April 2014

Special to American News Report

When we read the other day that the International Space Station had to dodge some dangerous space debris for the second time in three weeks, it prompted us to ask, “What’s going on up there?”

As it turns out — quite a bit— outer space is increasingly getting cluttered. NASA estimates that there are more than 20,000 pieces of debris bigger than a softball — and there are many millions of other debris pieces that are too small to track or even see.

bigstock-Best-Internet-Concept-of-globa-15990878Many scientists believe that the tiny, non-trackable debris may pose a significant overall hazard.

“The greatest risk to space missions comes from non-trackable debris,” said Nicholas Johnson, NASA chief scientist for orbital debris.

This challenge has caught the attention of Capitol College in Laurel, Maryland and its Astronautical Engineering (AE) Department.

“Orbital debris is a current open-ended problem in space,” said Alex “Sandy” Antunes, PhD. “Capitol has for some time been exploring the space debris problem within and outside of our curriculum.”

Capitol’s students have formed a “TrapSat” team where AE students work with students from other disciplines exploring innovative ways to capture the debris.

What students love about the project is that it’s real world experience, something that Capitol’s curriculum emphasizes in both the undergraduate and especially the graduate programs.

“The project features real life experiences tackling an open-ended problem instead of just a classroom exercise,” said Antunes.  “Choosing their own problem and their own approaches and working on multi-disciplinary/multi-major teams is great preparation for our students and their careers.”

The team will use small form factor satellites.

“We are going to use a substrate that will allow particulate to enter into the material and then it will be trapped and will burn up when the satellite re-enters the earth,” said TrapSat founder and lead engineer Ryan Schrenk, a Capitol student.

The substrate he talks about is aerogel, an ultralight material created by removing liquid from gel and replacing it with gas.

The particles that they are after are very small, less than a millimeter in size.

TrapSat’s work is building on earlier experiments involving aerogel, including a Mir space station environmental study that tested the material’s ability to capture small debris, as well as NASA’s Stardust Mission.

“We’re trying to fully flesh out this concept so it could be used to finally remove all this debris that’s collected up there and is just rotating around the earth,” explained student Mikus Bormanis.

The TrapSat team plans to launch its first high-altitude balloon this spring. That will be followed by a preliminary design review later in the year. Beyond that, the team could propose a satellite launch, work with government or corporate partners or even put the collection system on the market.


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