Understanding the debris population at GEO and the fate of elderly satellites

Lead Research Organisation: University of Warwick
Department Name: Physics


Geostationary satellites carry our TV channels, weather monitoring and communications (and military observations), and are a vital resource as we develop space technologies. Their altitude of 36000km has always suggested that the effects of debris would be small. However, in the last few months 2 geostationary satellites have literally broken apart. Furthermore, as spacecraft at GEO are too distant to de-orbit, towards the end of their operational lifetimes they are ejected out of the GEO into the so-called graveyard orbits. Here they are literally turned off and left to age. What happens to them past this point is conjecture: it is expected that they age and given the hostile space environment this itself could lead to breakup. However we are starting to expect that these spacecraft can be differentially acted upon by the solar wind, hence causing the spacecraft to start spinning. On a short timescale this could also lead to breakup.

This proposal is about identifying the constitution of the debris field at GEO and also studying the effects of radiation field on the state of elderly satellites.


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Blake J (2021) DebrisWatch I: A survey of faint geosynchronous debris in Advances in Space Research

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Blake James (2019) Optical imaging of faint geosynchronous debris with the Isaac Newton Telescope in Advanced Maui Optical and Space Surveillance Technologies Conference

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Chote Paul (2019) Precision Optical Light Curves of LEO and GEO Objects in Advanced Maui Optical and Space Surveillance Technologies Conference

Description As part of this award we discovered a hidden population of debris at GEO which implies a debris field exists. This population has been hinted at before but the observations associated with this demonstrated it. We also found (not surprisingly) that small debris is generally not round and is rotating or tumbling quickly. The implication of this is that surveys to a specific depth do not necessarily reach specific debris size.
First Year Of Impact 2021
Sector Aerospace, Defence and Marine,Education
Impact Types Policy & public services

Description Dstl collaboration 
Organisation Defence Science & Technology Laboratory (DSTL)
Country United Kingdom 
Sector Public 
PI Contribution Dstl have recognized the skills we have developed in GEO observation and data reduction through this project and have been keen to develop collaboration in this project and in future projects. Our expertise and analysis is clear and we have developed much software in the course of this project which is attractive to Dstl. In addition our ability to apply and win large telescope time has been paramount.
Collaborator Contribution On my invitation Dstl staff joined our collaboration to make best use of the INT observations we were obtaining. Their main contributions at this time were some aspects that impact the observations that we had less experience of (eg accurate earth shadow calculation). More recently we have begun discussions with Dstl orbital dynamics and modelling staff. Dstl have recently placed a 5-year fellowship at Warwick to fully exploit the collaboration. In addition Dstl are in the process of buying significant telescope time in Australia to repeat the original experiment at a different longitude.
Impact There are some but they are in AMOS currently, next years reporting will have journal references.
Start Year 2019
Description PLATO Selection Outreach 
Form Of Engagement Activity A press release, press conference or response to a media enquiry/interview
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Public/other audiences
Results and Impact Press release over the selection of PLATO as ESA M3 mission. Picked up by many organisations. Here is one from the telegraph.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2014
URL http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/science/space/10700476/Britain-joins-new-hunt-for-E.T..html
Description Talk to national workshop 
Form Of Engagement Activity A talk or presentation
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach National
Primary Audience Professional Practitioners
Results and Impact Talks to the conference series Astrodynamics Community of Interest (ACI)
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2018
Description University talk to astronautics society 
Form Of Engagement Activity A talk or presentation
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach Local
Primary Audience Undergraduate students
Results and Impact Talk to university student society
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2019