Space Institute Director concerned over space debris

Ask Professor Guglielmo Aglietti, Director Te Pūnaha Ātea Space Institute what sparked his interest in space and he’ll tell you that like many of his generation he was inspired by the Apollo Moon landings.

“To me, space has always represented the final frontier for human exploration,” says Professor Aglietti.

Today his focus is less on moon landings and more on what’s happening closer to Earth. Years of space activities have left behind millions of pieces of hardware orbiting the Earth’s atmosphere — from parts of rockets to defunct satellites and other debris, and this worries Aglietti.

"To me, space has always represented the final frontier for human exploration."

“Space junk orbiting around our Earth poses a real risk for new satellites and other space activities. Because our society relies heavily on satellite technologies (GPS, telecoms, weather-forecasting etc) we need to address this issue and this should be approached from many angles — from the application of a regulatory framework, to limiting growth of the amount of debris; to the deployment of technologies to deorbit satellites when they have terminated their useful life; to the capture and removal of orbiting objects that pose a threat to space activities.”

"Space junk orbiting around our Earth poses a real risk for new satellites and other space activities."

Award-winning work

A fellow of the Royal Academy of Engineering and of the Royal Aeronautical Society, Aglietti graduated in Italy with a first-class honours degree in Aerospace Engineering before working on the Columbus module of the International Space Station, and at the European Space Agency. In 1995 he moved to the UK, working initially at the University of Southampton before moving to Surrey as Royal Academy of Engineering Research Chair in Space Engineering and director of the UK’s Surrey Space Centre.

During his time at the Surrey Space Centre he was Principal Investigator for the internationally acclaimed RemoveDEBRIS project which successfully tested technologies for Active Debris Removal (ADR) such as a net and a harpoon designed to gather up space waste. The work won his team a prestigious Arthur Clark Award, (the “Oscars of space”), in the Space Achievement: Industry/Project Team category and the Aviation Week 63rd Annual Laureate Award 2020 for Technology & Innovation.

Read more about the RemoveDEBRIS project(external link) - University of Surrey website

Taking on new challenges

After 7 years at Surrey and various successful space missions, Professor Aglietti says that starting from scratch at Te Pūnaha Ātea Space Institute in Auckland, was an interesting change.

“The chance to take on new challenges in a new and dynamic environment, shaping the Institute and putting my experience in the sector into practice to grow New Zealand’s capabilities was very appealing to me.”

"Although there is far less experience and heritage here, the advantage is that there is more freedom to try new things, without the constraints imposed by the established modus operandi."

Professor Aglietti says the MBIE/New Zealand Space Agency partnership with space radar company LeoLabs is a good example of this. LeoLabs’ phased-array radar tracks small satellites and space debris – the first of its kind in the Southern Hemisphere. It can track objects as small as 2 centimetres in low Earth orbit and is 1 of only 3 currently operating in the world.

LeoLabs and MBIE signed the agreement in September 2018 to work together, resulting in the opening of LeoLabs’ Kiwi Space Radar in Naseby, Central Otago in October 2019.

Last updated: 03 August 2021