Topic outline

  • Detecting Orbital Debris Using Albedo: Index:

    Written by: Frances Dellutri, Jr. High / Intermediate Level SpacEdge Education Team and Lynne Zielinski, Manager of EIS Education                                                                                          Updated July 2022

    Title of Lesson: Orbital Debris and Albedo - Middle School
    Grade (Age) Level: Grades 5-8 (Ages 10-13)


    CCCS:   6.8.3, 6.8.7:
    NGSS:  MS-ESS1-3; MS-ESS3-2,3; MS-ETS1-1,4:  see

    Topic: Art, Astronomy, albedo, orbital debris, debris detection


    This lesson provides an introduction to orbital debris to set the stage. The concept of albedo (the ability of surfaces to reflect sunlight) is then introduced in an overview of the “Albedo Experiment,” where students will be guided through an experiment to determine the light reflecting from ‘orbiting’ objects. Concepts in this activity illustrate how albedo is employed in the study of space, specifically, in the detection of orbital debris.  

    When we look at the moon from Earth or the Earth from space, we are seeing reflected light, albedo. Earth is reflecting the sun's light energy and the moon is reflecting light energy from the sun and second hand sun reflection from Earth. Scientists have learned to use albedo in determining the size and shape of space objects that cannot be captured by a camera. The Air Force Phillips Laboratory in Maui, Hawaii uses albedo as one source to conduct measurements to characterize the orbital debris LEO environment. The U.S. Space Surveillance network primarily tracks deep space objects (those with orbital periods greater than 225 minutes) using optical sensors that detect reflected sunlight.  The observed brightness of a space object depends on many factors besides its size, such as its orientation, its surface composition and the viewing geometry.
    This experiment gives a friendly hands-on demonstration of determining and analyzing albedo and takes into account a space object in a mock revolving orientation.

    1. What is Orbital Debris? 

    2. Overview of Albedo Experiment

    3. Procedure for the Experiment

    4. Teacher Feedback to the Academy

    5. Discussion Forum

  • 1. What is Orbital Debris?

    The image is from the embedded video showing space debris orbiting Earth.

    Earth's orbital environment includes natural debris from the universe but the addition of man-made debris has changed that environment since the 1957 launch of  the 58 cm shiny metal satellite Sputnik I.  The information that follows explains the dangerous nature of the increasing amounts of orbital debris and the importance of tracking the debris to formulate plans for its mitigation. The following portions of this lesson allow students to become scientists in understanding how orbital space debris can be tracked using albedo.

    If you cannot view the video in YouTube, click here, Space Debris 1957-2016.