Sunday, May 31, 2015

Knocking satellites out of orbit: Grossmont College professor's research hits the mark

Philip Blanco
Tired of satellites spying on you? Space junk blocking your view? A possible solution may be closer than you think. Grossmont College Physics and Astronomy professor Philip Blanco recently published a research paper that discusses how to knock troublesome satellites out of orbit.

The article, `Satellite splat: an inelastic collision with a surface-launched projectile,’ is aimed more at motivating students rather than putting space agencies on alert. The paper will appear in the European Journal of Physics – an international scientific journal dedicated to boosting the quality of physics taught in higher education.

“Our hope is that the present paper will inspire further investigations and help introduce students to the fascinating field of astrodynamics,” the paper concludes.

Blanco credits his father's explosive backyard chemistry experiments and his early memories of the Apollo moon landings as the start of his interest in space science. A native of the U.K., he earned a Ph.D. in Astronomy from the University of Edinburgh in 1991. For the next decade he continued his research at UC San Diego, including working with a team providing support for NASA’s Rossi X-ray Timing Explorer satellite – which is still in orbit, though no longer operational.

Blanco joined the Grossmont faculty in 2005 and enjoys sharing his lifelong passion for astronomy and space with students. He also coordinates the Project ASTRO San Diego school outreach program, which links local astronomers with K-12 educators to provide hands-on science activities in schools.

The idea for “satellite splat” came to Blanco during Winter Break 2013 while noticing how pellets fired from a paintball gun knocked over a target. “How would that work in space?” he thought. He ran some calculations, and simulated orbits using a specialized software package STK. Then he teamed up with Dr. Carl Mungan, Associate Professor of Physics at the U.S. Naval Academy, to prepare and submit a paper. After a thorough peer review and a few revisions, it was accepted in April.
“Introductory physics courses cover momentum conservation for collisions and the principles of orbital motion for satellites, but seldom combine these ideas in applications,” the paper notes.

“I don’t want anyone to think this is groundbreaking research,” Blanco said. “This is all based on Newton’s laws of motion - 17th century physics - but our results were interesting and worth sharing. They may not be practical, but perhaps they will inspire young scientists and engineers to think about such 21st century issues as asteroid defense and space debris removal.”