AGH UST students aim to solve the problem of space debris

A team of AGH UST students will conduct a series of experiments as part of the “Drop Your Thesis!” Competition organised by the European Space Agency (ESA), which our students won. The “Black Spheres” Project aims to develop a method for removing space debris from the Earth’s orbit.

The experiment will involve the development of an algorithm that will analyse the drift and the mode of the movement of such objects. The experiment will be conducted at a drop tower located at the University of Bremen, Germany.

The problem of space debris is becoming more and more serious owing to the increasing number of orbital objects, which can collide with satellites launched earlier. Any such collision may produce a cloud of litter counted in thousands of particles, which make future incidents of a similar kind much more likely.

Michał Błażejczyk, Kamil Switek, Kacper Synowiec and Kamil Maraj – students of Automation Systems and Robotics at the Faculty of Electrical Engineering, Automatics, Computer Science and Biomedical Engineering (EAIIB) have decided to take a closer look at the methods of capturing space debris. The task is a real challenge owing to the small size of the objects, their high velocity and considerable degree of dispersion. Theoretically, the most effective way to address the problem should be capturing such objects using a robotic arm so as to grab a derelict satellite without causing damage and thus exclude the need for salvage operations. In this way, precious parts coming from space litter could be effectively reclaimed.

The experiment the students are to conduct in March will involve a 3D-printed, 88mm sphere weighing 250 grams, made from a special type of resin and designed to act as a defunct satellite. The sphere will contain a mechanism with a weight or – in an alternative configuration – a mass on a spring.

Each of the five trials will involve releasing two spheres with their movement being observed by means of six cameras placed inside a capsule. The drop tower in Bremen offers microgravity of about 9 seconds. The capsule containing the spheres will be shot  130 metres up and from the moment of catapulting the acceleration inside the capsule will be zero as its movement will neutralise gravity.

The project undertaken by AGH UST students focuses on the observation of a damaged satellite and automated prediction of its position and orientation. The research aims, among other things, to test a method for predicting motion in microgravity. The experiments will enable the research team to collect data concerning the movement of objects characterised by variable mass distribution. The project’s important side benefit  will be raising the awareness of the problem of orbital junk.

Mr Paweł Zagórski, DSc, the Black Spheres Project Supervisor, said:

“The success achieved by our students in this multi-stage competition has paved the way for the involvement of more of our students in similar initiatives launched by the European Space Agency in the future. Thanks to the project, we have established valuable contacts with ESA experts. The scope of the study broadens the range of research work into satellite orientation measurements conducted at the Department of Automation Control and Robotics. We hope that the results of our experiments will help address the urgent and escalating problem of space debris. This is yet another interesting initiative related to the space industry which we would like to get involved in, especially in view of the fact that since last year AGH UST has been officially recognised as a European Space University”.

“Drop Your Thesis!” is an annual student competition organised by the European Space Agency. The winning teams work on their projects enjoying access to professional facilities, which are normally used by ESA scientists. This initiative gives students an additional opportunity to write their Master or Doctoral theses based on the results of the experiments they have conducted.