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Space junk tracking backed by supercomputer power

The Earth surrounded by a cloud of orbiting space junk.

Distribution of debris around the Earth: European Space Agency.

RMIT researchers are using the NCI supercomputer in a major space, atmosphere and satellite navigation research centre. The Satellite Positioning for Atmosphere, Climate and Environment (SPACE) Research Centre uses high performance computing to work through large quantities of data from satellites and ground observation stations.

The centre focuses on a variety of atmosphere-based projects, including using radio waves from satellites to accurately describe the structure of the atmosphere. These real time findings have already provided a 10 hour improvement in predictability and reliability for Bureau of Meteorology weather forecasts.

Another project that the SPACE Research Centre is working on is around monitoring space junk. Professor Kefei Zhang, Director of the SPACE Research Centre, says “Everything nowadays relies on space technologies. The impact of space junk is that it can disable all that functionality such as the internet, weather forecasting and disaster monitoring.”

“There’s too much space junk, over 100 million pieces bigger than 1 millimetre endangering the operation of satellites. If we don’t do anything, satellites in space will not be useable in the next 30 to 40 years,” says Professor Zhang.

Keeping track of historical weather and satellite records and combining them with current data, requires the SPACE Research Centre to use the NCI to store and process the data. Following methods testing and development on smaller local computers, the researchers move their projects to NCI to compute. “We really need, firstly the parallel system to speed the research up, secondly the capacity for storage, and thirdly the memory to run the software,” says Professor Zhang.

“A huge amount of data is generated by modelling,” he says, “and if we want to do things such as collision avoidance, monitoring extreme weather events, cyclones and flooding, we have to do real time data streaming. Everybody relies on these technologies and this research is what makes other things possible.”

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