Laser to zap space debris, funding for SKA

Australian National University researchers working with defence technology company EOS have developed lasers to blast space debris out of orbit. 

Space debris (or “junk”) is becoming a serious problem as orbits get more congested with decommissioned space craft and other objects, and new satellites. Debris can smash into assets such as the International Space Station, and even a small object can cause great damage in space. 

The ANU’s “guide star laser” will use adaptive optics to better spot, track, and move space debris. 

Adaptive optics correct for haziness caused by atmospheric turbulence – the effect that makes stars twinkle. It “untwinkles” them. 

Lead researcher, ANU professor Celine D’Orgeville, said “removing the twinkle from the stars” cuts through the atmospheric distortion so objects can be seen more clearly. 

“This includes small, human-made objects – like weather and communications satellites, or space junk,” she said. 

EOS group chief executive officer Ben Greene said EOS maintains a database of space objects and will now be able to actively manipulate them. 

“Space debris is a major society threat, globally but especially in Australia due to our heavy economic dependence on space assets,” he said.

In delightful new for deep space exploration, the Federal Government has chipped in $387 million for supercomputing capabilities that will help astronomers study the beginning of the universe. 

On Wednesday, Prime Minister Scott Morrison committed $300 million over a decade to the Square Kilometre Array Observatory in Western Australia, which will be the world’s largest radio telescope. 

According to CSIRO, in its first phase SKA “will process data at a rate of about 157 Terabytes per second, which is enough to fill 27 million laptops with data every day and is about 5 times the estimated global internet traffic in 2015”.

The rest of the money will go to the Pawsey Supercomputing Centre, which is set to host the world’s first diamond quantum accelerator, and to fibre-optic connections and site readiness. 

Australia will build and host the low-frequency part of the SKA as part of its collaboration with 15 other countries. Eventually up to a million antennae will help scientists model the first billion years of the universe, including the formation of the first stars and galaxies. 

The Pawsey Supercomputing Centre will process that data, and is also available to organisations across Australia. 

PM Morrison said the technology would help scientists “crack some of the biggest problems that are there”. 

“The quantum computing capability is not just essential for solving deep scientific problems, but it’s absolutely essential for national security,” he said.

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