On the detection and tracking of space debris using the Murchison Widefield Array. I. Simulations and test observations demonstrate feasibility

Steven John Tingay, David L Kaplan, Benjamin McKinley, Frank Briggs, Randall B Wayth, Natasha Hurley-Walker, John A Kennewell, Craig Smith, Kefei Zhang, Wayne Arcus, N D R Bhat, David Emrich, David Edwin Herne, Nadia Kudryavtseva, Mervyn John Lynch, Stephen M Ord, Mark F Waterson, David Graeme Barnes, Martin Bell, Bryan Malcolm GaenslerE Lenc, Gianni Bernardi, Lincoln Greenhill, Justin C Kasper, Julie Bowman, Daniel Jacobs, John Bunton, Ludovico deSouza, Ronald Koenig, Joseph Pathikulangara, James Stevens, Roger Cappallo, Brian E Corey, Barton B Kincaid, Eric Kratzenberg, Colin J Lonsdale, Stephen Russell McWhirter, Alan E E Rogers, Joseph E Salah, Alan R Whitney, Avinash Deshpande, Thiagaraj Prabu, Natarajan Udaya-Shankar, K S Srivani, Ravi Subrahmanyan, Aaron Ewall-Wice, Lu Feng, Robert F Goeke, Edward H Morgan, Ronald A Remillard, Christopher L Williams, Bryna J Hazelton, Miguel F Morales, Melanie Johnston-Hollitt, Daniel A Mitchell, Pietro Procopio, Jennifer Riding, Rachel Lindsey Webster, J Stuart B Wyithe, Divya Oberoi, Anish A Roshi, Robert John Sault, Andrew J Williams

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23 Citations (Scopus)


The Murchison Widefield Array (MWA) is a new low-frequency interferometric radio telescope, operating in the benign radio frequency environment of remote Western Australia. The MWA is the low-frequency precursor to the Square Kilometre Array (SKA) and is the first of three SKA precursors to be operational, supporting a varied science mission ranging from the attempted detection of the Epoch of Reionization to the monitoring of solar flares and space weather. In this paper we explore the possibility that the MWA can be used for the purposes of Space Situational Awareness (SSA). In particular we propose that the MWA can be used as an element of a passive radar facility operating in the frequency range 87.5-108 MHz (the commercial FM broadcast band). In this scenario the MWA can be considered the receiving element in a bi-static radar configuration, with FM broadcast stations serving as non-cooperative transmitters. The FM broadcasts propagate into space, are reflected off debris in Earth orbit, and are received at the MWA. The imaging capabilities of the MWA can be used to simultaneously detect multiple pieces of space debris, image their positions on the sky as a function of time, and provide tracking data that can be used to determine orbital parameters. Such a capability would be a valuable addition to Australian and global SSA assets, in terms of southern and eastern hemispheric coverage. We provide a feasibility assessment of this proposal, based on simple calculations and electromagnetic simulations, that shows that the detection of sub-meter size debris should be possible (debris radius of >0.5 m to 1000 km altitude). We also present a proof-of-concept set of observations that demonstrate the feasibility of the proposal, based on the detection and tracking of the International Space Station via reflected FM broadcast signals originating in southwest Western Australia.
Original languageEnglish
Article number103
Number of pages9
JournalThe Astronomical Journal
Issue number4
Publication statusPublished - 2013

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