New Brunswick scientists are firing special guns to test armour that could eventually protect airplanes, military equipment and even spacecraft.

The Planetary and Space Science Centre at the University of New Brunswick is using large guns to fire objects at different materials.

The scientists hope the data from these tests will help design more advanced materials to protect people and equipment.

The Fredericton-based ballistics facility has a light gas gun that sets its tests apart from others in the country.

si-nb-space-junk-lab-220

The University of New Brunswick's Planetary and Space Science Centre uses a light gas gun for unique tests, such as simulating collisions with space junk. (CBC)

The light gas gun can shoot projectiles at hypersonic speeds, which is ideal for testing how well armour will stand up against collisions with space junk.

The equipment is vital to simulate the potential strikes that spacecraft could receive in orbit.

"It’s the speeds that we are dealing with are extremely high, So we're typically talking more than seven kilometres per second up to tens of kilometres a second," said John Spray, the director of the space science centre.

Surrounding the Earth in orbit is a minefield of leftover garbage from space launches and micro-meteorites, some as small as a grain of sand.

Even tiny objects can be lethal because of the high speeds they travel at in space. In an effort to protect satellites and spacecraft, the focus is often on lighter materials.

That's where new multi-layer materials armour comes into play, which combines woven mesh and plates.

"We have multiple layers of these such that the tiny projectiles are progressively fragmented and decelerated such that they don't hit the main body of the spacecraft," Spray said.

The next step is to create armour that not only keeps what's inside safe, but starts repairing itself as soon as it's hit.

Those are advances that scientists at the Fredericton say will be made thanks to thousands of test fires at their ballistics facility.

Researchers at the UNB centre are also focusing on potential collisions with objects closer to the Earth's surface.

Aurel Giroux, the facility manager at the Fredericton laboratory, said another of the centre’s guns fires objects, such as ballistic jelly, that simulates the impact of a bird hitting an airplane.

"It's used to replace four-pound bird shots. Those types of tests are common in aerospace sector for testing airplane parts," Giroux said.