Getting temperature estimates tells the researchers more about conditions in the environment when the debris reentered. That lets the researchers fine-tune their computer models and better assess the potential danger debris poses to humans on the ground, Ailor said.
Using this process, Ailor and his team have found that the amount of heating that space junk undergoes at high altitudes is less than they had expected — and that high-melting-point materials like titanium and stainless steel can survive reentry with little damage. Hazard prediction models around the world are being updated based on these results.
CORDS would like to use what it learns from its space junk collection to help spacecraft makers figure out how to "design for demise" — to engineer future orbiters to ensure they don't survive the return to Earth in the first place.
One approach could be adjusting the types and ratios of metals from which the craft are constructed.
Stopping to look at a titanium tank stored in a rear parking lot, Ailor pointed to a metallic splash pattern where traces of molten aluminum had flowed across the tank's leading edge during its plunge to Earth.
Here and there, the aluminum — which heats up as it encounters the friction of Earth's atmosphere — had melted holes in the otherwise nearly indestructible titanium.
Perhaps, Ailor said, one could strategically incorporate more aluminum in satellites and rocket parts so that they would largely burn up in the atmosphere, and fewer or no pieces would fall to the ground.
"If you're going to do 'design for demise,' that might be something you'd take advantage of," Ailor said.
To help conceive such spacecraft, the Aerospace team is launching mini-reentry vehicles of its own. The devices ride back to Earth on a reentering satellite or rocket component and are studded with sensors that can report precisely what happens during the descent and breakup of the host vehicle.
"It's like an airplane's black box," Ailor said.