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Artist's impression of satellite debris in the Earth's atmosphere

PI: Peter Ireland

Department: Engineering Science

Space debris has in recent years become a serious issue for space agencies and private corporations alike. As a result of the ever increasing population of orbiting objects, the European Space Agency (ESA) has spearheaded the Clean Space initiative, a scheme which aims to mitigate the growth of the orbital debris population, as well as developing technologies to clear those objects that already present orbital hazards. Part of this effort includes the improvement of satellite debris re-entry simulations, which are essential in determining whether or not debris objects will be destroyed during their transit through the Earth's atmosphere (and, if they are not, where they will impact the surface). The primary drawback that currently limits the application of this method however, is the extremely limited volume of experimental data regarding the complex heating phenomena which occur on such sharp-edged, non-aerodynamic shapes during atmospheric re-entry. The proposed work seeks to address this by performing thermal flux experiments on debris analogues like those modelled by current demise simulation codes. Oxford's Low Density Wind Tunnel (LDWT) will be used to simulate the high-speed, highly rarefied flow characteristic of the slip regime (a section of a planetary atmosphere which has historically presented significant challenges to analysts). The data generated by this study will then be analysed using state of the art post-processing methods and transferred to the industry partner Fluid Gravity Engineering (FGE Ltd.) whose debris re-entry code is among the most advanced currently under development. The improvements to FGE's code are expected to reduce the risk of injury from re-entering debris, as well as damage to property and disruption of services which rely on space-based technologies. It is also expected to help reduce costs for satellite manufacturers by reducing uncertainty in end-of-life calculations, which are now required prior to launch.

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