May 4—Manhattan High School sophomore Julius Neumann wants to clean up space.
Neumann, 15, won first place in the high school division at the Kansas State Science Fair in March for his project involving space junk. He said millions of pieces of space debris are orbiting Earth right now, ranging from inactive satellites and rocket bodies the size of school buses.
"There's even tools left behind by astronauts, and tiny particles of dust," Neumann said. "Each piece is traveling at more than 7 kilometers per second — 10 times the speed of a bullet."
Neumann said space debris poses a danger for other spacecraft orbiting the Earth, such as the International Space Station. He said the film "Gravity" inspired him to tackle this project, as the plot of the movie focuses on a disaster involving a collision with space junk. He said the collision speed and impact is so powerful, junk would instantly destroy any satellite or spacecraft, creating thousands of new fragments of space junk. He said the potential for collisions is increasing as more junk ends up orbiting the planet.
"Space junk is a huge threat, not only to any crafts in orbit around the Earth, but also to satellite-based services here on the ground," Neumann said.
Neumann said one could use the analogy of an interstate highway to explain the danger of space debris.
"You can imagine all these cars on the interstate that are broken down, but not standing still; they're all moving toward you at the same speed you're moving," Neumann said. "There are super high velocities up in space and in orbit."
Neumann sought to find a new method for cleaning up space junk that utilizes the Earth's atmosphere and a bit of physics. He said his idea was for a spacecraft to collect chunks of space debris and jettison that debris into the atmosphere, causing it to burn up and disintegrate while saving rocket fuel.
"The advantages are the spacecraft can stay in orbit and clean up more debris, and while it throws that junk into the atmosphere, it will be propelled in the opposite direction," Neumann said. "I wanted to find out if a craft could perform those arbitrary orbit changes while collecting junk."
Neumann said he created a computer simulation to test his theory, and it works.
"It is indeed possible to raise and lower the orbit of the spacecraft by throwing debris into the atmosphere," Neumann said.
Neumann said he had to calculate the orbit of the spacecraft and a satellite, basing his work on classic mechanics like Newton's laws of motion and the conservation of momentum.
"I learned a lot about orbital mechanics and rocket science in the process of doing this project," Neumann said. "I derived a lot of the equations myself, like for initial orbit velocity."
Neumann said he could have looked up the necessary equations, but he wanted to see how the math worked for himself, so he experimented with different equations.
"I really like math and physics," Neumann said. "I had a lot of fun deriving the equations."
Neumann's father, Titus Neumann, said one time they were on a flight back from Germany, and for most of the flight home, Julius was doing math problems.
"He must've been in first or second grade at the time," Titus said. "He was just doing them for fun, that was his in-flight entertainment."
Titus, who is originally from Germany, said the family moved to Manhattan from California when Julius was 3. Titus said his son has been interested in science-related subjects since he was young.
"He was so excited about basically everything science that he does all of this by himself," Titus said. "No teacher needs to tell him to do it."
In addition to his first-place win, Neumann received the NASA Earth Science System Award.
He said the event usually consists of him making a poster and driving to Wichita to present his project in front of a panel of judges. This year's science fair was virtual because of the pandemic. Neumann made a PowerPoint presentation and recorded several videos of him reporting on his findings and answering questions.
"I'm still happy there was a science fair at all; last year everything got canceled," Neumann said.
Titus said he remembers the excitement around the Apollo space missions of the 1960s and '70s.
"Somehow I think that excitement for space has gotten lost over the decades," he said. "Science funding gets cut all the time, too, especially over the last couple of years. ... It would be good if the appreciation for science would be stronger."