Let’s clean out the junk from space! – Professor Minna Palmroth has a plan

Space debris is increasing and causing dangerous situations. Scientists are trialling the cleaning of Earth’s orbits with a satellite to be launched next summer.

Professionally speaking, Professor Minna Palmroth is going through exciting times. The Finnish Centre of Excellence in Research of Sustainable Space, which is headed by Palmroth, aims to send a satellite the size of a milk carton into space next summer. For now, there is no certainty about the launch site, as the pandemic closed down laboratories and caused delays to the plans.

The satellite will measure cosmic radiation in new ways to enable the development of increasingly durable satellites. In addition, it will test a plasma brake technology designed in Finland that can remove satellites from orbit.

The sustainable space research project, a globally groundbreaking effort, is a partnership between the University of Helsinki, the Finnish Meteorological Institute, Aalto University and the University of Turku. Humanity has made the valuable orbits around Earth congested.

“Certain orbits can no longer be used. If you put a satellite there, it would disintegrate.”

Palmroth compares the space debris problem to leaving worn-out cars on motorways to collide with each other. Failures in satellite technology can cause crisis pile-ups.

Already as a child, Palmroth wanted to find out how the world works. As a 15-year-old Scout, she lay in the snow with her friends in Lapland, gazing at the Northern Lights dancing in the sky. Physics already interested her at the time.

Palmroth and her research group have developed Vlasiator, the world’s most accurate technique for modelling space weather, a phenomenon that affects satellites, power distribution and navigation signals, as well as the creation of space debris.

It was in 2004 that Palmroth originally started thinking about a simulation that would encompass the entire magnetosphere.

“To begin with, my idea was laughed at: it couldn’t work.”

There were no computers available that would be able to run so extensive a program. Palmroth was certain that a computer with the required capacity would soon be available.

“I had an idea about basing our designs on future computational resources.”

Alongside her research, Palmroth writes for the general public, with a scientific storybook for children as her latest offering. She is also one of the authors of Revontulibongarin opas (Into, 2018), a guide for Northern Lights spotters. Together with enthusiasts, Palmroth discovered a new form of auroral emissions.

“Popularising science is my source of joy.”

The article has been published in Finnish in the 9/2020 issue of the Yliopisto magazine.