More than a half million pieces of space debris are orbiting the earth, at speeds up to 17,500 miles per hour. Clearly this debris is a safety concern for astronauts aboard the International Space Station, but it also threatens to damage or destroy spacecraft and critical military, intelligence, communications, weather and navigation satellites.
Richard Rast is a senior engineer at the Air Force Research laboratories in New Mexico who created an innovative way to track this space debris to help reduce the risk of potential collisions. The invention itself is pretty darn cool – and has the added bonus of literally saving lives. For his work, Rast has been nominated for a Service to America Medal (Sammies), the Oscars for federal employees.
Rast told Chris Dorobek that finding a solution to space pollution was his top priority.
Rast’s system could become a cost-effective supplement to the current processes used by the Air Force and NASA that rely on expensive telescopes, radar systems and considerable manpower for analysis.
“Years ago NASA’s Don Kessler discovered the possibility of a domino effect in space, where you have one collision or explosion that produces enough small pieces of debris that those pieces collide with other satellites,” Rast explained. “The debris keeps accumulating to where earth’s orbit will be so contaminated we won’t be able to operate in it. “
Until Kessler’s theory no one had really anticipated space debris being a problem – so sources of energy onboard satellites were left armed. “Satelittes have propellants that normally mix to make the engine burn and give it thrust,” said Rast, “but they would leave these propellants onboard. Overtime the bulkhead separating the propellant from the engine deteriorates. What’s left is a bomb flying around in orbit. You don’t know when it’s going to go off, but as much as a couple decades later, that bulkhead will fail, the two propellants mix and bam, you got this huge explosion in space producing thousands of fragments.”
Rast’s invention uses a series of small telescopes developed by Los Alamos National Laboratory that capture the faint light signals entering the lens. Rast converts the camera photos into a movie, where he uses the human eye’s sensitivity to detect variations between frames to separate man-made objects from the star background and identify objects the size of just a few centimeters.
“I demonstrated that under the right conditions, an arrangement of small telescopes can perform as well as the now Air Force base surveillance system radar fence for a fraction of the cost,” said Rast. “These telescopes are so cheap that the whole system still costs less than a tenth as much as radar.”
The Partnership for Public Service writes, "Being aware of objects in space is critically important because of the nation’s reliance on satellites. If satellites are damaged by space debris, it costs millions of dollars to replace them and can take down vital communications, surveillance, navigation, timing, weather, imagery and military systems.
As satellites reach end-of-life and are replaced with new versions, the old equipment and the boosters often are not properly de-orbited or moved to safe disposal orbits, creating the growing hazard. The space debris currently orbiting the earth includes more than a half million objects, of which more than 20,000 pieces are larger than a softball and are traveling at extraordinarily high speeds.
The risk was dramatically depicted in the recent Academy Award-winning film Gravity, in which high-speed debris strikes the space shuttle, sending a medical engineer aboard the orbiting laboratory hurtling into space and touching off a series of catastrophes.
The real-life dangers of floating debris became evident in March 2014 when astronauts aboard the space station were forced to raise its altitude by half a mile in order to dodge a piece of an old weather satellite predicted to come within 1,900 feet of the station."
Saving astronauts from space debris wasn’t always Rast’s objective, but working for NASA was the dream since he was 12 years old.
“When I was in junior high school, I actually wrote a letter to NORAD, the North American Aerospace Defense Command. I wish I’d kept the reply I received from this nice young lieutenant who worked there. But he said all you have to do is get a college degree in this area, and you are in,” said Rast. “It was so encouraging to me when I was a kid that somebody cared enough to write back to me. That’s when I knew this was the job for me.”
Now Rast is passing encouragement onto the next generation of public servants. “Feds should not be discouraged about all the talk show criticism of federal employees. Most feds I know are honest, hardworking people who put up with a lot for love of country. I have this theory that the amount of paperwork is directly proportional to the size of the company, so when you work for the largest employer in the world, you should expect some bureaucracy, but just don’t let the enormity of your employer get in the way of personal productivity.”
Rast said he sees his role as helping government organizations become aware of and embrace new technology and new ideas. Working at the Air Force Research Laboratory, he said, also gives him the “freedom to be creative and think outside the box” to help his country.
So what’s next for Rast and his team? “There are so many other things to do in space. There are these asteroid hunters who serendipitously photograph artificial or satellites every night. They jokingly call them one-night stands because they’re usually moving so fast that they won’t see them again the following night. As far as I know, the asteroid hunter data has never been thoroughly analyzed. So we’d like to learn what they can tell us about human caused debris in deep space, way out three towards the moon.”
All summer long the DorobekINSIDER will be talking with the finalists for the Sammies. Find all our stories on the Sammies here.
*Photo by Sam Kittner