Researchers from two Fraunhofer institutes have developed new technologies – including a novel radar system – that protects spacecraft from orbital debris.
The new technologies could help scientists precisely locate disused satellites, burned-out rocket stages and thousands of pieces of debris produced by collisions, making space travel a safer experience.
According to the Fraunhofer FHR team leader, Helmut Wilden, the new ‘GESTRA’ surveillance radar is capable of detecting objects and debris in low Earth orbit up to 3000 kilometers.
While GESTRA is able to scan large areas of space around the clock, the radar system ‘TIRA’ detects objects from just a few centimeters in size and larger, enabling it to measure their trajectories with high levels of precision.
In the event of a collision, robust materials and smart designs could help protect satellites against serious damage, the researchers contend.
The new PIRAT software from the Fraunhofer EMI calculates whether the satellite design or individual components can withstand a collision. It factors in the flight path of the planned mission and the particle impacts to be expected in that region.
“PIRAT makes it possible to determine the failure probability of individual components – even inside the satellite – if a piece of space junk pierces the external wall upon collision and spreads out as a cloud of fragments,” explains Dr. Martin Schimmerohn from Fraunhofer EMI. “Through the clever placement of components and the adding of thin protective layers, you can find a safe design with minimum impact on the overall system.”
The EMI team has also developed ERNST, a lightweight, multifunctional, shoe box-sized satellite that could help researchers slash development costs and time-to-orbit. When carried into orbit in 2021, ERNST will be equipped with an infrared camera for Earth observation.
According to the researchers, the camera is mounted on a special bracket known as an optical bank, which was manufactured using metallic 3D printing technology.
Image and content: Fraunhofer EMI/Fraunhofer FHR