Scientists Want to Monitor Space Debris from Warming Russian Arctic

A MIPT team is building prototype observatories over the coming weeks in Amderma, Nenets Autonomous Region.

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Nov 19 2018, 8:32pm

Amderma Airport, Nenets Autonomous Region. Image: Petr Gorbunov

The most sophisticated telescopes on Earth are often constructed in extreme landscapes, such as Hawaiian volcano summits or remote Chilean deserts, chosen for their clear view of the stars.

Now, scientists are looking to the Russian Arctic as a potential location for new astronomical observatories. In a bittersweet twist, this region may become more accessible to scientific and commercial development as climate change warms and melts the Eurasian North, opening up new shipping lanes that have been too icy to easily traverse before. Plus, the region’s long, dark nights and high-latitude coordinates would offer a rare Arctic view of the night sky, and could be a good place to monitor space debris in polar orbits.

To lay the groundwork for potential Arctic observatories, Alexander Rodin, head of the Applied Infrared Spectroscopy Laboratory at Moscow Institute of Physics and Technology (MIPT), is leading an expedition to build and test experimental telescopes in Nenets Autonomous Region over the coming weeks.

It’s not clear what impact climate change will have on viewing conditions in the region, Rodin told Motherboard in an email. “However, climate change and increasing accessibility increase general interest to the region by major world players,” he said. Rodin hopes to establish Arctic space observation infrastructure in the near future to prepare for the expected rush to develop Russia’s polar regions.

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Nenets Autonomous Okrug (in red). Image: Stasyan117

The coastal town of Amderma, located about 1,200 miles northeast of Moscow as the crow flies, was selected for this pilot project. Rodin and his colleagues plan to set up temporary instruments there by late November and aim to be taking measurements in December. By 2020, the team hopes to have set up a more permanent operational network of observatories.

“We plan a wide range of experiments, including astro-climate studies, space object observations, and even greenhouse gas monitoring in the region of interest,” Rodin said. “As the Russian Arctic has not been seriously considered as a potential area of astronomical observations, comprehensive preliminary studies need to be done.”

One of the biggest priorities for the expedition is to assess the region’s usefulness for monitoring space debris, which threatens operational spacecraft; the tiny grains erode spacecraft exteriors while larger chunks could cause catastrophic collisions. Decades of spaceflight missions have left an estimated 170 million pieces of space junk in orbit around Earth, including about 30,000 objects that measure more than 10 centimeters (four inches) in diameter.

Scientists around the world are collaborating on the growing space debris problem, but much of the focus has been on busy geostationary orbits above Earth’s equatorial regions, where most of the junk is concentrated. Less attention has been paid to the debris building up in polar orbits, and Rodin believes these trajectories need to be more actively monitored.

“Of course, at the moment, geostationary orbit remains the most populated location in the near-Earth space, but this situation may change in the future,” he told me, citing forthcoming satellite constellation missions, like Russia’s Sfera project.

“We need to be prepared to introduce an international ‘road traffic law’ for Earth-orbiting satellites, including those on the high-inclination orbits, and to control their observation by all participants.”

Read More: Climate Change Has Delayed the First Oil Production Facility in Federal Arctic Waters

More broadly, the expedition aims to yield insights into the development of future astronomical observatories in the Russian Arctic. Rodin recently attended an international conference in Naryan-Mar, Nenets, centered on anticipating the effects of climate change on the region’s industry, science, and culture.

“There is a common opinion that average temperature will rise in the nearest decades, and the area of perennial ice in the Arctic will dramatically shrink,” Rodin said. “However, nobody knows for sure how cloud coverage, haze, atmospheric turbulence, and other parameters important for astronomical observations will change. Thus we need more comprehensive climate research in this key area of our planet.”

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