Monday, September 10, 2012

Drury physics professor shares knowledge of space debris - Springfield News-Leader

Drury physics professor Greg Ojakangas is recognized among his peers as an expert in junk, and NASA is sending him to Hawaii to share this expertise with scientists and military personnel.

The junk Ojakangas studies floats hundreds of miles above the Earth.

“There’s a new initiative called active debris removal. It hasn’t happened yet, but NASA is planning to have missions to remove space debris from orbit,” Ojakangas said. “It’s very expensive, but it’s been predicted that the expense of not doing anything is going to be even greater.”

Ojakangas spoke at the Advanced Maui Optical and Space Surveillance Technologies Conference in 2011. His talk centered on small pieces of space junk in geosynchronous orbit 22,000 miles above the Earth that could damage satellites and spacecraft.

On Saturday, Ojakangas will present a paper titled “Probable Rotation States of Rocket Bodies in Low Earth Orbit.”

Low Earth orbit is anything orbiting less than 1,200 miles above the Earth.

“These are cylindrical pieces of classic multiple stage rockets,” Ojakangas said. “Some are as large as a bus. Imagine all of those buses driving around the surface of the Earth at 16,000 miles an hour. How likely would they be to collide? Once they collide and break apart into thousands of pieces, there isn’t a lot you can do about it. You can track the largest pieces, but the probability of another collision increases exponentially.”

Ojakangas’s research and expertise will help NASA determine how the rocket bodies are rotating. That’s important for astronauts to know as they approach the cylinders and attempt to remove them from orbit.

Ojakangas was once a finalist in NASA’s astronaut training program. He contracts with NASA to produce computer models that track orbiting debris.

Story by Mark Miller, Drury University’s associate director of marketing and communications

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