GARDEN CITY, Rich County — Most people don't realize it, but right now at this very moment, thousands of pieces of junk are flying around right over their heads.
It's in orbit around the Earth — space junk — and it's a big threat to do serious damage and bodily harm.
Now, in the snowy mountains around Bear Lake, Utah State University has a new project that's designed to do something about the high-altitude, high-tech trash.
"The current estimate is about 700,000 of these objects," said former assistant professor Kohei Fujimoto, who has just left USU to work for a company that's developing systems to remove space junk from orbit. "There are about 20,000 objects that are 10 centimeters or greater in diameter. So that's about the size of a softball."
Inside a small dome that's about the size of a two-man tent, USU has installed a 10-inch diameter telescope that's designed to spy on flying junk.
"This has a robotic arm that allows the telescope to move and slew across the night sky," Fujimoto said as he recently opened the dome.
The problem of orbiting debris was highlighted in Alfonso Cuaron's 2013 film "Gravity." George Clooney and Sandra Bullock starred as astronauts struggling to survive in space after a blizzard of orbiting debris destroyed their space shuttle.
The movie drew criticism for some technical inaccuracies, but there's no doubt that space junk is real. And it's a real threat. The orbiting debris is leftover junk from abandoned and destroyed satellites, spacecraft, booster rockets — the nuts and bolts and leftovers from a half-century of rocket launches.
Bear Lake's high elevation, dark skies and generally clear air make it a perfect spot for a telescope to survey the planet's highest junkyard.
"Theoretically we can observe objects down to about a foot in size," Fujimoto said.
Students at Utah State University don't even have to travel to Bear Lake to use the telescope. They can do it right from their lab on campus by connecting to a computer inside the telescope's dome. The students have begun capturing images of junk, and they're beginning to create a catalogue of space debris.
"You can take a number of measurements," said student Arun Bernard, "and then, knowing those positions, you can then determine the orbit of the objects and track them that way."
"The first step in understanding and starting to rectify the problem," Fujimoto said, "is to know where these objects are, what are they doing, where are they going to be going in the future."
The ultimate goal is collision avoidance. The junk is orbiting at velocities up to 3 miles a second, so even a tiny chunk can deliver a knockout punch to satellites that the world depends on for communication, military surveillance, weather forecasting and even iPhone location services.
Of course there's more at stake than smartphones. As in the movie "Gravity," space debris can be fatal.
"Yeah, for the astronauts in space, " Fujimoto said, "this is a life or death issue."
The USU telescope is the first west of the Mississippi to be dedicated to the study of orbital debris. Fujimoto hopes the university's data will go into a debris catalogue that provides advance warning of collisions.
Meanwhile, in another promising approach, Japan has just launched an experimental orbiting junk collector.
"We're already at a point where, even if we don't launch anything, the number of objects is going to increase due to collisions and explosions" of debris that's already in orbit, Fujimoto said. "So removal is really the next challenge."
Fujimoto left USU to work on space-debris removal with Tokyo-based Astroscale, but USU intends to continue its studies on the problem.
Whoever imagined we'd have to clean up after ourselves — in space?