3 mins read 09 Jun 2022

USQ Students To Measure Space Junk

Two PhD students from the University of Southern Queensland are setting out to collect physical data to support space junk re-entry research.

Gerard Armstrong (left) and Flynn Hack (right). Credit: USQ.

Two PhD students from the University of Southern Queensland (USQ) are setting out to measure space junk re-entry using experimental studies. This research will see students Gerard Armstrong and Flynn Hack collecting physical data to back-up pre-existing computer modelling which currently relies on theoretical calculations and assumptions. PhD Supervisor and University Research Dr Fabian Zander explained the importance of the study to improve the safe re-entry of orbiting objects.   

“There is a lot of current space junk, future space junk and meteoroid debris entering the Earth’s atmosphere at high speeds,” Dr Zander said. “A classic example is the International Space Station – it’s not all going to burn up in the atmosphere, so how big will the surviving pieces be? And where are they going to go? You also get pieces with different velocities falling in different directions. This study aims to uncover how these pieces disperse, which will, in turn, help us to protect people and places should we have an uncontrolled re-entry.”

Armstrong and Hack are both from engineering backgrounds and were interested in the research project as a way to gain practical skills and to enter the space sector. 

“I had previously been working with defence, but I knew I wanted to focus more on the space sector,” Mr Hack said. “So when I heard of this project through a fellow academic, I knew that it was everything I was looking for.”

“It was similar for me, I had been preparing to start a job in Perth when I heard about the project,” Mr Armstrong said. “It sounded really interesting and I wanted to study something that would help me pick up more practical skills.”

Armstrong and Flynn will work with a team of scientists and engineers to understand how objects break up when re-entering the Earth’s atmosphere. They plan to match theoretical modelling with a range of physical experiments using the University’s hypersonic wind tunnel. This will be one of the first ground-based studies into space debris dispersion.

“Obviously the simulations have an advantage as they are relatively inexpensive to run,” Mr Armstrong said. “But the issue is you need physical data to validate them. So in our work, we will use numerical simulations to make predictions about how objects break apart, and then we will perform the physical experiments to confirm this data.”

“I love the fact that we are working on this as a team – all joined by a common goal,” Mr Hack said. “We’re planning some exploratory experiments now, and once we get the results we will know what to hone in on.”

This research is part of a bigger project at USQ which is supported by an Australian Research Council Grant. Earlier this year USQ was awarded \$551,000 by the Australian Research Council Discovery Projects scheme to study the break-up and impact of space junk as it re-enters Earth’s atmosphere.