Skip to main content

Secondary navigation:

Space Debris Research

detecting orbiting object threats at isr

Scans of debris swarm.

According to the NASA Orbital Debris Program Office, there are more than 19,000 pieces of debris in orbit bigger than 10 cm as of 2006, and half a million objects smaller than that. The ISR has a small program to investigate space debris using recently flown telescopes on satellites whose primary missions are to study other things. With the cameras on the Solar Mass Ejection Imager (SMEI), we discovered swarms of debris occasionally interfering with the detections of solar storms. These swarms turned out to be clouds of small particles ejected from the host spacecraft, Coriolis, probably due to impacts by other small pieces of space debris.

Debris field around Earth. NASA photo.

Although not life- or mission-threatening to most satellites, these small objects contribute, perhaps substantially, to the degradation and loss of efficiency of the outer layers on spacecraft, including thermal insulation and solar panels. Streaks from space debris also contaminate the data from NASA's Wide-field Infrared Survey Explorer (WISE). From the infrared measurements, the debris population can be assessed and characterized with different, possibly smaller, biases compared to those inherent in the standard radar-based observations.


Mizuno, D.R., Price, S.D., Kraemer, K.E., Kuchar, T.A., & Johnston, J.C. 2012 “Debris Swarms Seen by SMEI,” Adv. Sp. Res., 49, 162-176. ADSDOI.

Point of Contact for this project is Kathleen Kraemer.