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Astronomy Space

Daily Dose of Astronomy

Beyond the Radar: A New Era in Space Junk Detection is on the Horizon

Discover how the SINTRA project is revolutionizing space junk tracking with state-of-the-art sensors capable of detecting debris as small as one millimeter in diameter. This groundbreaking technique aims to enhance the safety of satellites and space operations by identifying and tracking the vast majority of space debris that current systems miss. Learn about the collaboration between military, academic, and research institutions to mitigate risks posed by orbital debris and ensure the sustainable use of space.

Space junk, or orbital debris, refers to the millions of pieces of man-made objects orbiting Earth that no longer serve a purpose. This debris poses a significant risk to satellites and spacecraft, making tracking and managing these objects crucial for the safety of space operations.

The Challenge of Tracking Smaller Debris

Traditionally, tracking capabilities have been limited to objects larger than a softball, leaving the vast majority of smaller debris undetected. This limitation poses a significant risk, as even tiny fragments can cause substantial damage at high orbital speeds.

Introducing SINTRA: A New Hope for Debris Detection

SINTRA (Space Debris Identification and Tracking) represents a groundbreaking approach to detecting and tracking space debris as small as one millimeter in diameter. This method combines advanced sensors with traditional tracking systems to identify electric field pulses generated by colliding debris fragments.

Estimated number of objects in low Earth orbit. Credit: NASA

How SINTRA Works

  • Detection of Plasma Waves: SINTRA utilizes state-of-the-art sensors to detect plasma waves created by debris collisions. These waves generate electric field pulses, similar to static sparks, which can be tracked.
  • Collaboration and Experimentation: Funded by the Intelligence Advanced Research Projects Activity, SINTRA is a collaborative effort involving military contractors and universities. Experiments involve measuring electric signals from space debris collisions to refine detection techniques.

The Potential Impact of SINTRA

If successful, SINTRA could revolutionize the tracking of space debris, enabling the detection of ultra-small debris fragments. This advancement could significantly reduce the risk to satellites and space missions, enhancing the safety and sustainability of space operations.

A piece of space junk punched this hole into the hull of NASA’s Solar Max spacecraft. Image credit: NASA Orbital Debris Program Office.

The Road Ahead

Despite its promising potential, SINTRA faces challenges, such as varying signal frequencies and the need to distinguish signals from background noise. Ongoing experiments aim to address these issues, moving closer to a comprehensive space debris tracking system.


SINTRA represents a significant step forward in addressing the challenge of space debris. By enabling the detection of smaller fragments, it offers hope for safer space operations and the long-term sustainability of space activities.

For more information, see the SINTRA website.