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Drury Professor Studies Space Junk for NASA

For Immediate Release: July 7

Dr. Gregory Ojakangas
Associate Professor of Physics
Office: (417) 873-7846


Mark Miller
Director of Media Relations, University Communications
Office: (417) 873-7390
Mobile: (417) 839-2886

SPRINGFIELD, Mo., July 7, 2009
— Drury Physics Professor Dr. Gregory Ojakangas is working for NASA this summer studying space junk. Ojakangas produces mathematical models of man-made space debris to help assess the hazards of collisions between these objects and spacecraft near the Earth.

“These objects, which pose a potentially catastrophic threat to both manned and unmanned space missions, can be observed by telescope as points of light that grow brighter and dimmer as they rotate in the sun while orbiting the earth,” says Ojakangas. “We have intriguing measurements of these wavering points of light far out in space. In order to understand what the data mean, we simulate them using theory, computer programs and laboratory simulations.”

Ojakangas creates these computer programs on his personal computer, while in a laboratory at the Johnson Space Center in Texas, pieces of actual debris from fragmented satellites are rotated by a robotic arm, illuminated by an artificial light source representing the sun and observed by laboratory equipment representing telescopes pointed out into space.

Geometric models of these objects are input into Ojakangas’s programs, which then predict the observations in the laboratory. “When the computer models satisfactorily match the laboratory simulations, which are made by observing objects of known shapes and orientations, we can begin to understand what the telescopic observations are telling us about the nature of earth-orbiting debris,” says Ojakangas.

“The goal is to be able to look at a piece of orbiting debris, far too distant to resolve directly, and be able to tell its size, shape and probable composition just by the way it reflects light. As NASA prepares to return to the Moon and Mars, getting astronauts and spacecraft safely beyond our own orbiting junkyard is a prerequisite.”

Ojakangas is a former full-time NASA scientist, and he has continued working with NASA for over 20 years, producing mathematical models of man-made space debris. He has also been a finalist in the astronaut program.


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