Happy Holidays from ThinkTank Maths 2018

18 December 2018

This year’s ThinkTank Maths Christmas Card is about the problem of Space Debris in orbit around the Earth, in view of the new UK Space Object Catalogue initiative.

With space becoming more and more easily accessible over the last 3 or 4 decades, the number of objects in orbit, including uncontrolled objects like defunct satellites and debris from launch vehicles and collisions, has increased at an alarming rate. Today it is estimated that in orbit around the Earth are over 20,000 pieces of debris larger than an apple, over 500,000 larger than a pea and over 100,000,000 fragments smaller than 1 cm.

Travelling in excess of 28,000 kilometres per hour (that’s 8km/sec), even the smallest piece of debris can cause very serious damage to spacecraft, space installations, and is ultimately a lethal danger for astronauts working outside a space station. As an illustration, at this speed an object of 1cm has the same destructive effect as a grenade, and a 1 mm flake of paint creates an impact equivalent to that of a 1.5 kg pétanque boule thrown at a speed of 100 km/h.

With currently no efficient way of removing debris the situation continues only to get worse; debris orbiting around the Earth for years – even for several hundreds of years for the highest orbits - are going to fragment and multiply as they incessantly inter-collide with each other (the ‘Kessler Effect’), rendering space potentially unusable as we lock ourselves inside a debris belt of our own creation.

Identification and long term tracking of space objects is essential to help future space traffic policies and avoid collisions with functioning structures in space (satellites, space station, …).

Unfortunately, current technology and data analysis techniques can only reliably identify and track objects above 10cm in size, ( only 0.02% of dangerous debris ), highlighting also the crucial need for scientific advancement in this domain.

Your pre-Christmas Mission

You have been assigned the perilous task of launching a new satellite into orbit around the Earth. However, as we have seen, this task is complicated by the fact that past irresponsible launch activities have left the target orbits cluttered with uncontrolled satellites and other debris.

You need to read the information (data) provided by the ground-based observatories on your screen to determine when it is safe to launch.

At each of the 2 launch stages you will be presented with 3 simultaneous sets of data from which you will decide the right moment for the launch.

The game is tailored to your name, so you may also want to enter other names or words to play different versions of the game. You can move your view of the Earth using the mouse.

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