AUSTIN (KXAN) – There’s too much space junk. Earlier this week, a piece of junk collided with the International Space Station and damaged a 60-foot robotic arm. This isn’t uncommon. Researchers estimate that around half a million pieces of trash are in orbit around the planet right now. This trash can be anything from a tool dropped by an astronaut 50 years ago, to a paint chip from the space shuttle. All of this junk is stuff we launched into space.
A team at UT Austin is hoping to address this problem. “Like 96% of the stuff we track is garbage,” says Moriba Jah PhD, a former engineer with NASA and an associate professor at the University of Texas. According to Dr. Jah, countries and agencies around the world are constantly tracking junk in our orbit.
“We can’t track everything.” Telescopes and radars on Earth are unable to track anything smaller than a coffee cup, like a paint chip. Unfortunately these items are moving very quick and even the smallest object can cause a lot of damage.
For example, if a small tool were to collide with a telecommunications satellite, your phone could go from five bars to zero in an instant. So yeah, space junk is a problem.
Tracking the garbage in our atmosphere
To help explain the space junk problem, Dr. Jah developed Astriagraph, a crowdsourced program that collects data from around the world to create a visual representation of junk in our upper atmosphere. Scanning across the program you can see the International Space Station, the debris from a destroyed rocket and multiple strings of Elon Musk’s Starlink satellites, all moving in real time.
One problem with tracking space junk, there isn’t an official unified database that collects all the observations from around the world. Dr. Jah says this creates a problem for determining what junk is being observed. Is this just a unique satellite? Or are different agencies seeing the same thing but reporting it as two different objects?
Dr. Jah hopes that Astriagraph will act as a sort of Waze for space navigation because the information will be sent in by amateur observers as well. But getting to this point requires the public to care about space junk and the threat it poses.
Exploring space junk in augmented reality
Dots on a screen are not enough, according to Dr. Jah. “Just going to people and saying pretty please with sugar on top… that’s insufficient. People need to have an inner shift.” Dr. Jah partnered with UT Associate Professor Sven Ortel and a team at UT to create “Eyes on the Sky.”
The project is an XR or Augmented Reality exhibit that, once built, will allow visitors to get up close with the trash orbiting our planet. “We can’t travel to the ISS, but using XR we can,” says Professor Ortel, “We can’t travel into space, but using XR we can.”
The exhibit will work much like a ride at Disney World. Visitors will enter a lab where a preshow, presented by a video of Dr. Jah, will explain the problem. Visitors will then enter the Skydome, a large structure covered in screens where the experience will take place.
During the experience, Dr. Jah will take the group from the great pacific garbage patch to the International Space Station and finally to Mars.
“You just believe you are in this place, even though there is a small part of your brain that says no, no, no. You are not here. You just walked into this dome device,” says Professor Ortel.
Motion tracking will allow visitors to interact with the experience. They’ll be given tasks to complete, like blocking junk from hitting the ISS. Gloves and goggles will be provided for the experience to help further increase the immersion. “The physical element is really important here to create a meaningful experience,” says Professor Ortel.
Construction of phase 1 of the exhibit will cost about $500k. Later phases could add smells and wind to the exhibit. Once completed, the exhibit will travel to different museums across the country. Some, like the Smithsonian, have already agreed to host the experience.
A prototype of the exhibit will be built by a group of UT students this fall semester. That prototype will cost $75k to build. The team is currently fundraising to build the prototype. If you’d like to learn more about the project, you can e-mail the team’s producer Erin Reilly. The teams hope that the augmented reality experience will give people a greater understanding of the space junk problem.