- PAULEY sponsors first Space Situational Awareness Conference
- Collective efforts to ‘clean up’ Low Earth Orbits is essential
- Virtual 3D environments could help tackle the problem
PAULEY were delighted to sponsor the inaugural Space Situational Awareness Conference 2013.
We were invited to showcase our virtual reality visualisation of space using our Oculus Rift developer kit. The 80 international delegates, from research laboratories to government departments and private companies, were queuing up at our stand throughout the two days to take the immersive trip into space.
We garnered some great feedback over the two days of the conference. But why might accurate visualisation of space be such an important asset in the years to come? And how could we help?
Situational space awareness gains urgency
As Alfonso Cuarón’s Gravity wins plaudits for its portrayal of astronauts fighting for survival after a devastating mid-space collision, we’re becoming increasingly aware of the complex machinery orbiting beyond our atmosphere.
The central plot of the film – in which debris from a destroyed satellite sweeps catastrophically around Earth – isn’t that preposterous. While the movie may portray spacecraft to be much closer than they are in reality, we are launching new objects into orbit all the time.
And collisions do happen. In 2009, the satellite Iridium 33 collided with an out-of-service Russian satellite, creating thousands of pieces of debris. While most of that debris is now thought to have burnt up in the atmosphere, the ISS had to perform an avoidance manoeuvre two years after the event.
“Situational space awareness can no longer afford to be ignored,” says our founder, Phil Pauley. “It’s essential that R&D, industry and military organisations continue to join forces.”
Out of sight, out of mind?
In this modern, interconnected world, so much of what we do depends upon space satellites, from communications to weather forecasting, navigation and defence. There are around 1,000 active satellites in orbit today, with a net worth of €100 billion. They must be protected.
But there are threats to this status quo, in the form of naturally occurring space weather (predominantly solar flares and cosmic rays), asteroids and comets, and man-made space debris.
The debris issue is a growing problem. Causing most problems in low Earth orbits, debris is found where the majority of satellites used for observations, communications and military surveillance operate.
20,000 items of ‘space junk’ larger than a mobile phone are being tracked, and half a million smaller fragments are circling our planet. Travelling at speeds of 5 miles a second, they can do a lot more harm than you might think.
Just because we can’t see space debris from Earth, doesn’t mean it isn’t there. Tools such as ours could help accurately visualise the extent of the situation, make it real, and create ways to address the problem and help find solutions.
This month’s conference was recognition of the fact that something must be done. Despite political, military and international boundaries, it seems that those invested in space must start working together to take collective responsibility for debris.
Moving towards collective responsibility
Suggested approaches include launching ‘clean-up’ missions to collect large, disused and hazardous objects. Rockets armed with harpoons, robotic arms or nets could collect space junk and then either launch it out into a less crowded orbit or swing it back into the Earth’s atmosphere to burn up.
How PAULEY could help
The UK and international space industry is growing rapidly, and our reliance on the information gathered and distributed by spacecrafts and satellites is booming. There are plenty of challenges and opportunities ahead.
Much discussion at the conference centred on finding ways of incentivising a consistent process of cleaning up. Do we look at implementing a kind of global space traffic control, perhaps, using our technology to allow us to see what’s happening remotely?
Industry, government and business, some of whom we met at the SSA 2013 Conference, are keen to find new ways of training those involved in the industry, to visualise crafts in space, and to begin astronaut preparation in immersive e-learning environments on Earth.