Richard Rast finds cost-effective method to detect space debris

Friday - 5/16/2014, 2:25pm EDT

Richard Rast, Senior Engineer, Air Force Research Laboratory

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Nearly half a million pieces of space debris orbit the Earth, posing a danger to spacecraft and artificial satellites. It's like something out of the movie "Gravity."

Enter Richard Rast, senior engineer in the Air Force Research Laboratory at Kirtland Air Force Base, New Mexico, who developed an innovative and cost- effective method to track space debris floating in Earth orbit.

Richard Rast, Senior Engineer, Air Force Research Laboratory, Kirtland Air Force Base, New Mexico.

Small telescopes developed by Los Alamos National Laboratory take photos of the faint reflections of light from the pieces of debris. Rast takes those images and converts them into a moving picture. The human eye can then pick out the objects as they move across the sky.

"Richard Rast demonstrated that his small telescope approach can find and track space objects at a much lower cost than traditional methods and provide a quality of data previously assumed impossible for a small telescope system to achieve," said Maj. James Thomas, the chief of the Air Force Research Laboratory's Satellite Assessment Center at Kirtland.

For his work in finding a cost-effective way to identify space debris that pose a threat to American astronauts and satellites, the Partnership for Public Service recently named Rast as one of the finalists for the 2014 Science and Environment Medal. The award recognizes federal employees who have made important contributions in the area of science and environment. This includes biomedicine, economics, energy, information technology, meteorology, resource conservation and space.

Getting to know Richard Rast

Federal News Radio asked each of the Sammies finalists five questions about themselves. Here are Rast's responses:

What three words best describe your leadership philosophy?
Let it be. This is not the Beatles song; but a loose translation of laissez-faire, deliberate abstinence from interference.

What's the best piece of advice (or words of wisdom) you've ever received and who gave it to you?
My father told me that the main reason for getting a college degree was not to make more money, but to enjoy my work.

Who is your greatest role model and why?
My grandfather taught me patience and forgiveness by example. I ruined his expensive 35-millimeter camera by taking photographs at night in freezing temperatures, but he never even yelled at me.

What's the last thing you read and what's next on your reading list?
Having finished "Radioisotopes and the Age of the Earth," I now plan on reading "Radioisotopes and the Age of the Earth: Volume II."

What would be the title of your autobiography and why?
"Succeed without Trying by Making a Hobby of Your Job." Not everyone can do this, of course, but I was blessed with such circumstances.

The Science and Environment Medal is just one of the Samuel J. Heyman Service to America Medals (Sammies) presented annually by the Partnership for Public Service. View a photo gallery of all the Sammies nominees.