Space debris objects are a growing threat to the space environment. As the orbital population grows, so does the risk of a collision between these space debris objects and an active satellite.
Orbital objects can travel at speeds of up to 8 kilometres per second. At these velocities, even the smallest of debris can have a catastrophic effect. Consequently, several institutions around the world have been developing new sensors that are capable of monitoring these objects down to a few centimetres in size.
Prof. Kris Zarb Adami and Dr Alessio Magro from the Institute of Space Sciences & Astronomy and PhD students Mr Josef Borg and Mr Denis Cutajar at the University of Malta are part of an international collaboration that is developing the back-end for one of Europe’s largest radar instruments, called BIRALES.
This powerful radar consists of a radio transmitter in Caligari, Sardinia and the BEST-2 phased array in Medicina, near Bologna, Italy. This bi-static radar is the fruit of a collaboration between the Italian National Institute for Astrophysics (INAF), the University of Malta and the Politecnico di Milano.
Nowadays, BIRALES has established itself as one of Europe's space situational awareness sensors. It has been engaged in several observation campaigns that were designed to track both active satellites and space debris objects. Furthermore, the radar has also been involved in the monitoring of re-entry of orbital objects, such as decommissioned satellites.
In 2018, it was part of an international campaign in the monitoring of the Chinese Tiangong-1 space station's uncontrolled re-entry. The world watched as the 8500-kilogram space station came crashing down into the Pacific Ocean on 2 April 2018.
On 1 May, the radar was engaged in the monitoring of the 21 tonnes Long March 5B rocket body. This rocket body became the largest object to perform an uncontrolled re-entry from orbit in 30 years. These achievements mark one of the latest positive developments of the European Space Situational Awareness (SSA) program.