12 Jul 2012
The last two 'traumatic' episodes in Space go back a few years: the latest was the collision between the Russian satellite Cosmos 2251 and the American Iridium33, in February 2009. Two years earlier, a Chinese antisat missile hit the Fengyun-1C weather satellite dead centre, causing it to explode: a somewhat “heavy handed” move by Beijing, which also proved to be a little clumsy, generating a huge amount of debris.
Exactly 13 months later (so we are now in February of 2008) the United States "explained" - so to speak - to the Chinese that some things can be done in a much cleaner manner, destroying their spy satellite USA193 with a SM3 missile launched from the warship USS Lake Erie west of Hawaii. The secret? Americans hit their targets within 100 km from the earth: it is more difficult, but the debris created disappears in a matter of months due to the friction of the atmosphere.
Thus far the news behind which lies the problem: only the first two collisions mentioned, have produced a debris mass of nearly 5 thousand fragments, bringing the total number of potentially dangerous fragments larger than 10 cm to over 19 thousand, zipping around the Earth at speeds of several kilometres per second and were built by man. Or rather, all that remains of objects constructed on Earth. All materials to which "natural" debris are added that wander in space and on the existence of which man has no particular responsibility.
"Let’s not forget - explains Enrico Flamini, ASI Chief Scientist - that all the space around us is in this sense potentially hostile. Just think about the storms of protons generated periodically by the Sun (the last just a day before this workshop, on the 8th of July) or the amount of craters on the Earth's surface created by asteroid impacts".
The reckoning is easily done: at present as many as 180 of these 'holes' have been counted. The last large crater discovered has just been 'certified’ by our COSMO-SkyMed system: named Kamil and was caused by an asteroid that crashed into the Egyptian Sahara (see photo above). The exact dating of the "crash" is still being studied.
"The problem is huge, important, and now at the top of many agendas. This is the reason - said the head of ASI for space debris, Claudio Portelli, who is also Italy's head for the SSA program - we have organized this workshop on Space Situational Awareness (SSA)". "The idea - said Flamini - was to bring together sector stakeholders, public research bodies and private companies in order to get an updated picture of the situation, so that the ASI can assess activities and proposals in view of this year’s ESA Ministerial Council in Caserta".
Participation to the "two days" that ended in the ASI headquarters in Viale di Villa Grazioli on July 10 was successful beyond expectations, managing to bring together Italian expertise in the fields of SST (Space Surveillance and Tracking) and NEO (Near Earth Objects) in view of the implementation phase (2012-2019) of the of SSA program of the European Space Agency.
The main purpose, that is to promote collaboration between research groups and interaction with the industry to harness the potential of individual researchers thereby optimising the contribution of our country to the implementation of the program, may be considered - according to the organizers - achieved.
During the interesting final round table, attended by various Italian space representatives (for the ASI Scientific Council, the Chief Scientist and the head for the ASI security, the Defence Administration, Theles Alenia Space, the General Satellite Company, Telespazio , Selex Galileo and Aviospace) and ESA, issues that are not part of the current Ministerial phase were also raised. Such as the need for a space segment as an additional contribution to future phases of the SSA program, especially to start the necessary removal of 5-6 large satellites per year and to stabilize the current criticality of the number of objects orbiting the Earth.
"The interaction between the EPR (public research bodies, editor’s note) for the results achieved in federation concerning Space Debris and NEO, was excellent” - said Portelli. It should be emphasized on this point that the ASI has acted as a vehicle to put researchers from the EPR in contact with each other and EPR and the industry/PMI.
"Equally interesting - said Portelli – is the involvement of amateur astronomers (Unione Astrofili Italiani) in addition to the EPR, as an element of widespread dissemination of Italy’s attention to the problem. The current capability of national Radars and Telescopes - he concluded - are by no means negligible compared to other European countries, which so far have utilised their potential better. Small implementation efforts could transform the existing structures in pre-operative sensors within the SSA ESA".