The growing problem of space debris in LEO (Low-Earth Orbit) is garnering more and more attention. With thousands of satellites in orbit, and thousands more on the way, our appetite for satellites seems boundless. But every satellite has a shelf-life. What do we do with them when they’ve outlived their usefulness and devolve into simple, troublesome space debris?Continue reading “Can We Use Special Sails To Bring Old Satellites Back Down To Earth?”
There’s no denying it, we are facing an orbital debris problem! As of January 2019, the ESA’s Space Debris Office estimates that there are at least 34,000 pieces of large debris in Low Earth Orbit (LEO) – a combination of dead satellites, spent rocket stages, and other assorted bits of space junk. And with thousands of satellites scheduled to be launched in the next decade, that problem is only going to get worse.
This is a situation that cries out for solutions, especially when you consider the plans to commercialize LEO and start sending crewed missions to deep space in the coming years. A team of scientists from the Universidad Carlos III de Madrid (UC3M) has come up with a simple but elegant idea: equip future satellites with a tether system so they can de-orbit themselves at the end of their lives.Continue reading “Satellites Equipped With a Tether Would be Able to De-Orbit Themselves at the end of Their Life”
There are 20,000 objects orbiting Earth at this moment that are larger than 10 cm. Out of that number, only about 2,000 are operational satellites. The other 18,000 objects are pieces of junk of varying sizes. But it’s not just junk: it’s dangerous junk.
If that doesn’t sound like a problem, keep this in mind: Thanks to SpaceX and others, we’re living in the age of cheap access to space, and we’re seeing more and more satellites boosted into orbit. The problem won’t go away on its own.Continue reading “Before We Ruin the Universe, We Should Follow Some Space Sustainability Guidelines”
Last summer, a new type of debris-hunting satellite was released from the International Space Station (ISS). It’s known as the RemoveDebris spacecraft, a technology-demonstrator developed by Surrey Satellite Technology Ltd and the Surrey Space Center. The purpose of this satellite is to test whether satellites equipped with targeting software, a debris net and a harpoon are effective at combating space debris.
For the past few months, this spacecraft has been conducting a series of Active Debris Removal (ADR) exercises. About a week ago, according to a recent statement, the RemoveDebris satellite tested out its harpoon for the first time. As you can see from the video, the satellite successfully demonstrated its harpoon system and verified its ability to secure space debris and keep it from flying away.Continue reading “British Satellite Tests its Space Junk Harpoon”
If there’s one thing that decades of operating in Low Earth Orbit (LEO) has taught us, it is that space is full of hazards. In addition to solar flares and cosmic radiation, one of the greatest dangers comes from space debris. While the largest bits of junk (which measure more than 10 cm in diameter) are certainly a threat, the real concern is the more than 166 million objects that range in size from 1 mm to 1 cm in diameter.
While tiny, these bits of junk can reach speeds of up to 56,000 km/h (34,800 mph) and are impossible to track using current methods. Because of their speed, what happens at the moment of impact has never been clearly understood. However, a research team from MIT recently conducted the first detailed high-speed imaging and analysis of the microparticle impact process, which will come in handy when developing space debris mitigation strategies. Continue reading “Micrometeorite Damage Under the Microscope”
Space junk is a growing problem. For decades we have been sending satellites into orbit around Earth. Some of them de-orbit and burn up in Earth’s atmosphere, or crash into the surface. But most of the stuff we send into orbit is still up there.
This is becoming an acute problem as years go by and we launch more and more hardware into orbit. Since the very first satellite—Sputnik 1—was launched into orbit in 1957, over 8000 satellites have ben placed in orbit. As of 2018, an estimated 4900 are still in orbit. About 3000 of those are not operational. They’re space junk. The risk of collision is growing, and scientists are working on solutions. The problem will compound itself over time, as collisions between objects create more pieces of debris that have to be dealt with.
After almost seventy years of spaceflight, space debris has become a rather serious problem. This junk, which floats around in Low Earth Orbit (LEO), consists of the spent first rocket stages and non-functioning satellites and poses a major threat to long-term missions like the International Space Station and future space launches. And according to numbers released by the Space Debris Office at the European Space Operations Center (ESOC), the problem is only getting worse.
In addition, space agencies and private aerospace companies hope to launch considerably more in the way of satellites and space habitats in the coming years. As such, NASA has begun experimenting with a revolutionary new idea for removing space debris. It is known as the RemoveDebris spacecraft, which recently deployed from the ISS to conduct a series of Active Debris Removal (ADR) technology demonstrations.
This satellite was assembled by Surrey Satellite Technology Ltd. and the Surrey Space Center (at the University of Surrey in the UK) and contains experiments provided by multiple European aerospace companies. It measures roughly 1 meter (3 feet) on a side and weighs about 100 kg (220 lbs), making it the largest satellite deployed to the ISS to date.
The purpose of the RemoveDebris spacecraft is to demonstrate the effectiveness of debris nets and harpoons at capturing and removing space debris from orbit. As Sir Martin Sweeting, the Chief Executive of SSTL, said in a recent statement:
“SSTL’s expertise in designing and building low cost, small satellite missions has been fundamental to the success of RemoveDEBRIS, a landmark technology demonstrator for Active Debris Removal missions that will begin a new era of space junk clearance in Earth’s orbit.”
Aside from the Surrey Space Center and SSTL, the consortium behind the RemoveDebris spacecraft includes Airbus Defense and Space – the world’s second largest space company – Airbus Safran Launchers, Innovative Solutions in Space (ISIS), CSEM, Inria, and Stellenbosch University. The spacecraft, according to the Surrey Space Center’s website, consists of the following:
“The mission will comprise of a main satellite platform (~100kg) that once in orbit will deploy two CubeSats as artificial debris targets to demonstrate some of the technologies (net capture, harpoon capture, vision-based navigation, dragsail de-orbitation). The project is co-funded by the European Commission and the project partners, and is led by the Surrey Space Centre (SSC), University of Surrey, UK.”
For the sake of the demonstration, the “mothership” will deploy two cubesates which will simulate two pieces of space junk. For the first experiment, one of the CubeSats – designated DebrisSat 1 – will inflate its onboard balloon in order to simulate a larger piece of junk. The RemoveDebris spacecraft will then deploy its net to capture it, then guide it into the Earth’s atmosphere where the net will be released.
The second CubeSat, named DebrisSat 2, will be used to test the mothership’s tracking and ranging lasers, its algorithms, and its vision-based navigation technology. The third experiment, which will test the harpoon’s ability to capture orbiting space debris, is set to take place next March. For legal reasons, the harpoon will not be tested on an actual satellite, and will instead consist of the mothership extending an arm with a target on the end.
The harpoon will then be fired on a tether at 20 meters per second (45 mph) to tests it accuracy. After being launched to the station back on April 2nd, the satellite was deployed from the ISS’ Japanese Kibo lab module on June 20th by the stations’ Canadian robotic arm. As Guillermo Aglietti, the director of the Surrey Space Center, explained in an interview with SpaceFlight Now before the spacecraft was launched to the ISS:
“The net, as a way to capture debris, is a very flexible option because even if the debris is spinning, or has got an irregular shape, to capture it with a net is relatively low-risk compared to … going with a robotic arm, because if the debris is spinning very fast, and you try to capture it with a robotic arm, then clearly there is a problem. In addition, if you are to capture the debris with a robotic arm or a gripper, you need somewhere you can grab hold of your piece of debris without breaking off just a chunk of it.”
The net experiment is currently scheduled for September of 2018 while the second experiment is scheduled for October. When these experiments are complete, the mothership will deploy its dragsail to act as a braking mechanism. This expandable sail will experience collisions with air molecules in the Earth’s outer atmosphere, gradually reducing its orbit until it enters the denser layers of Earth’s atmosphere and burns up.
This sail will ensure that the spacecraft deorbits within eights weeks of its deployment, rather than the estimated two-and-half years it would take to happen naturally. In this respect, the RemoveDebris spacecraft will demonstrate that it is capable of tackling the problem of space debris while not adding to it.
In the end, the RemoveDebris spacecraft will test a number of key technologies designed to make orbital debris removal as simple and cost-effective as possible. If it proves effective, the ISS could be receiving multiple RemoveDebris spacecraft in the ftureu, which could then be deployed gradually to remove larger pieces of space debris that threaten the station and operational satellites.
Conor Brown is the external payloads manager of Nanoracks LLC, the company that developed the Kaber system aboard the Kibo lab module to accommodate the increasing number of MicroSats being deployed from the ISS. As he expressed in a recent statement:
“It’s wonderful to have helped facilitate this ground-breaking mission. RemoveDebris is demonstrating some extremely exciting active debris removal technologies that could have a major impact to how we manage space debris moving forward. This program is an excellent example of how small satellite capabilities have grown and how the space station can serve as a platform for missions of this scale. We’re all excited to see the results of the experiments and impact this project may have in the coming years.”
In addition to the RemoveDebris spacecraft, the ISS recently received a new tool for detecting space debris. This is known as the Space Debris Sensor (SDS), a calibrated impact sensor mounted on the exterior of the station to monitor impacts caused by small-scale space debris. Coupled with technologies designed to clean up space debris, improved monitoring will ensure that the commercialization (and perhaps even colonization) of LEO can begin.
When Elon Musk of SpaceX tweets something interesting, it generates a wave of excitement. So when he tweeted recently that SpaceX might be working on a way to retrieve upper stages of their rockets, it set off a chain of intrigued responses.
SpaceX will try to bring rocket upper stage back from orbital velocity using a giant party balloon
— Elon Musk (@elonmusk) April 15, 2018
SpaceX has been retrieving and reusing their lower stages for some time now, and it’s lowered the cost of launching payloads into space. But this is the first hint that they may try to do the same with upper stages.
Twitter responders wanted to know exactly what SpaceX has in mind, and what a “giant party balloon” might be. Musk hasn’t elaborated yet, but one of his Twitter followers had something interesting to add.
Quinn Kupec, a student at the University of Maryland’s James Clark School of Engineering tweeted to Musk:
If you're proposing what I think you are, an ultra low ballistic entry coefficient decelerator, then you and @SpaceX should come see what we have at the @UofMaryland . We've been working on this for awhile and just finished some testing pic.twitter.com/nJBvyUnzaK
— Quinn Kupec (@QuinnKupec) April 16, 2018
Universe Today contacted Mr. Kupec to see if he could help us understand what Musk may have been getting at. But first, a little background.
An “ultra low ballistic entry coefficient decelerator” is a bit of a mouthful. The ballistic coefficient measures how well a vehicle can overcome air resistance in flight. A high ballistic coefficient means a re-entry vehicle would not lose velocity quickly, and would reach Earth at high speeds. An ultra low ballistic entry coefficient decelerator would lose speed quickly, meaning that a vehicle would be travelling at low, subsonic speeds before reaching the ground.
To recover an upper stage booster, low speeds are desirable, since they generate less heat. But according to Kupec, there’s another problem that must be overcome.
“What happens when these things slow down to landing velocities? If your center of gravity is offset significantly behind your center of drag, as would be the case with a returning upper stage, it can get unstable. If the center of gravity of the re-entry vehicle is too high, it can become inverted, which is obviously not desirable.”
So the trick is to lower the speed of the re-entry vehicle to the point where the heat generated by reentry isn’t damaging the booster, and to do it without causing the vehicle to invert or otherwise become unstable. This isn’t a problem for the main stage boosters that SpaceX now routinely recovers; they have their own retro-rockets to guide their descent and landing. But for the upper stage boosters, which reach orbital velocities, it’s an obstacle that has to be overcome.
“My research is specifically focused on how high you can push the center of gravity and still maintain the proper flight configuration,” said Kupec.
But what about the “giant party balloon” that Musk tweeted about?
Musk could be referring, in colorful terms, to what’s called a ballute. The word is a combination of the words balloon and parachute. They were invented in the 1950’s by Goodyear Aerospace. They can arrest the descent of entry vehicles and provide stability during the descent.
“…the balloon would have to be 120 ft. in diameter, and made of a high-temperature fabric…” – Professor Dave Akin, University of Maryland
Universe Today contacted Professor Dave Akin of the University of Maryland for some insight into Musk’s tweet. Professor Akin has been working on reentry systems for over 2 decades.
In an e-mail exchange, Professor Akin told us, “There have been concepts proposed for deploying a large balloon on a cable that is towed behind you on entry. The balloon lowers your ballistic coefficient, which means you decelerate higher in the atmosphere and the heat load is less.” So the key is to scrub your speed before you get closer to Earth, where the atmosphere is thicker and generates more heat.
But according to Professor Akin, this won’t necessarily be easy to do. “To get the two orders of magnitude reduction in ballistic coefficient that Elon has been talking about the balloon would have to be 120 ft. in diameter, and made of a high-temperature fabric, so it’s not going to be all that easy.”
But Musk’s track record shows he doesn’t shy away from things that aren’t easy.
Retrieving upper rocket stages isn’t all about lowering launch costs, it’s also about space junk. The European Space Agency estimates that there are over 29,000 pieces of space junk orbiting Earth, and some of that junk is spent upper stage boosters. There have been some collisions and accidents already, with some satellites being pushed into different orbits. In 2009, the Iridium 33 communications satellite and the defunct Russian Cosmos 2251 communications satellite collided with each other, destroying both. If SpaceX can develop a way to retrieve its upper stage boosters, that means less space junk, and fewer potential collisions.
There’s a clear precedent for using balloons to manage reentry. With people like Professor Akin and Quinn Kupec working on it, SpaceX won’t have to reinvent the wheel. But they’ll still have a lot of work to do.
Musk tweeted one other thing shortly after his “giant party balloon” tweet:
And then land on a bouncy house
— Elon Musk (@elonmusk) April 16, 2018
No word yet on what that might mean.
Elon Musk’s “giant party balloon” tweet: https://twitter.com/elonmusk/status/985655249745592320
Quinn Kupec’s tweet: https://twitter.com/QuinnKupec/status/985736260827471872
Over the weekend, multiple space agencies’ had their instruments fixed on the skies as they waited for the Tiangong-1 space station to reenter our atmosphere. For the sake of tracking the station’s reentry, the ESA hosted the 2018 Inter Agency Space Debris Coordination Committee, an annual exercise that consists of experts from 13 space agencies taking part in a joint tracking exercise.
And on April 2nd, 02:16 CEST (April 1st, 17:16 PST), the US Air Force confirmed the reentry of the Tiangong-1 over the Pacific Ocean. As hoped, the station crashed down close to the South Pacific Ocean Unpopulated Area (SPOUA), otherwise known as the “Spaceship Cemetery”. This region of the Pacific Ocean has long been used by space agencies to dispose of spent spacecraft after a controlled reentry.
The confirmation came from the Joint Force Space Component Command (JFSCC) on April 2nd, 0:400 CEST (April 1st, 19:00 PST). Using the Space Surveillance Network sensors and their orbital analysis system, they were able to refine their predictions and provide more accurate tracking as the station’s reentry time approached. The USAF regularly shares information with the ESA regarding its satellites and debris tracking.
As with the ESA’s coordination with other space agencies and European member states, JFSCC’s efforts include counterparts in Australia, Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, South Korea, and the United Kingdom. As Maj. Gen. Stephen Whiting, the Deputy Commander of the JFSCC and Commander of the 14th Air Force, indicated in a USAF press release:
“The JFSCC used the Space Surveillance Network sensors and their orbital analysis system to confirm Tiangong-1’s reentry, and to refine its prediction and ultimately provide more fidelity as the reentry time approached. This information is publicly-available on USSTRATCOM’s website www.Space-Track.org. The JFSCC also confirmed reentry through coordination with counterparts in Australia, Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, South Korea, and the United Kingdom.”
The information is available on U.S. Strategic Command’s (USSTRATCOM) website – www.Space-Track.org. Holger Krag, the head of ESA’s Space Debris Office, confirmed the reentry of Tiangong-1 shortly thereafter on the ESA’s Rocket Science Blog. As he stated, the reentry was well within ESA’s earlier reentry forecast window – which ran from April 1st 23:00 UTC to 03:00 UTC on April 2nd (April 2nd, 01:00 CEST to 05:00 CEST):
“According to our experience, their assessment is very reliable. This corresponds to a geographic latitude of 13.6 degrees South and 164.3 degrees West – near American Samoa in the Pacific, near the international date Line. Both time and location are well within ESA’s last prediction window.”
China’s Manned Space Agency (CMSA) also made a public statement about the station’s reenty:
“According to the announcement of China Manned Space Agency (CMSA), through monitoring and analysis by Beijing Aerospace Control Center (BACC) and related agencies, Tiangong-1 reentered the atmosphere at about 8:15 am, 2 April, Beijing time. The reentry falling area located in the central region of South Pacific. Most of the devices were ablated during the reentry process.”
As Krag noted, the ESA’s monitoring efforts were very much reliant on its campaign partners from around the world. In fact, due to when the station entered the Earth’s atmosphere, it was no longer visible to the Fraunhofer FHR institute’s Tracking and Imaging (TIRA) radar, which provides tracking services for the ESA’s Space Debris Office (SDO).
Had the station still been in orbit by 06:05 CEST (21:00 PST), it would have still been visible to the institute’s TIRA radar. Some unexpected space weather also played a role in the station’s reentry. On March 31st, the Sun’s activity spontaneously dropped, which delayed the Tiangong-1’s entry by about a day.
“This illustrates again the dependence that Europe has on non-European sources of information to properly and accurately manage space traffic, detect reentries such as Tiangong-1 and track space debris that remains in orbit – which routinely threatens ESA, European and other national civil, meteorological, scientific, telecomm and navigation satellites,” said Krag.
While news of the Tiangong-1’s orbital decay caused its share of concern, the reentry happened almost entirely as predicted and resulted in no harm. And once again, it demonstrated how international cooperation and public outreach is the best defense against space-related hazards.
Further Reading: Vandenburg Air Force Base,
This past weekend, a lot of attention was focused on the Tiangong-1 space station. For some time, space agencies and satellite trackers from around the world had been predicting when this station would fall to Earth. And now that it has safely landed in the Pacific Ocean, many people are breathing a sigh of relief. While there was very little chance that any debris would fall to Earth, the mere possibility that some might caused its share of anxiety.
Interestingly enough, concerns about how and when Tiangong-1 would fall to Earth has helped to bring the larger issue of orbital debris and reentry into perspective. According to the SDO, on average, about 100 tonnes of space junk burns up in Earth’s atmosphere every year. Monitoring these reentries and warning the public about possible hazards has become routine work for space debris experts.
This junk takes the form of defunct satellites, uncontrolled spacecraft, the upper stages of spent rockets, and various discarded items (like payload covers). Over time, this debris is slowed down by Earth’s upper atmosphere and then succumbs to Earth’s gravitational pull. Where larger objects are concerned, some pieces survive the fiery reentry process and reach the surface.
In most cases, this debris falls into the ocean or lands somewhere far away from human settlement. While still in orbit, these objects are tracked by a US military radar network, the ESA’s Space Debris Office, and other agencies and independent satellite trackers. This information is shared in order to ensure that margins of error can be minimized and predicted reentry windows can be kept narrow.
For the SDO team, these efforts are based on data and updates provided by ESA member states and civil authorities they are partnered with, while additional information is provided by telescopes and other detectors operated by institutional and private researchers. One example is the Tracking and Imaging Radar (TIRA) operated by the Fraunhofer Institute for High Frequency Physics and Radar Techniques near Bonn, Germany.
This is a challenging task, and often subject to a measure of imprecision and guesswork. As Holger Krag, the head of ESA’s Space Debris Office, explained:
“With our current knowledge and state-of-the-art technology, we are not able to make very precise predictions. There will always be an uncertainty of a few hours in all predictions – even just days before the reentry, the uncertainty window can be very large. The high speeds of returning satellites mean they can travel thousands of kilometres during that time window, and that makes it very hard to predict a precise location of reentry.”
Of the 100 tonnes that enters our atmosphere every year, the vast majority are small pieces of debris that burn up very quickly – and therefore pose no threat to people or infrastructure. The larger descents, of which there are about 50 per year, sometimes result in debris reaching the surface, but these generally land in the ocean or remote areas. In fact, in the history of spaceflight, no casualties have ever been confirmed by falling space debris.
The ESA also takes part in a joint tracking campaign run by the Inter Agency Space Debris Coordination Committee, which consists of experts from 13 space agencies. In addition to the ESA, this committee includes several European space agencies, NASA, Roscosmos, the Canadian Space Agency, the Japanese Aerospace Exploration Agency, the Indian Space Research Organization, the China National Space Agency, and the State Space Agency of Ukraine.
The purpose of these campaigns is for space agencies to pool their respective tracking information from radar and other sources. In so doing, they are able to analyze and verify each other’s data and improve prediction accuracy for all members. The ESA hosted the 2018 campaign, which followed the reentry of China’s Tiangong-1 space station as it entered Earth’s atmosphere this weekend – the details of which are posted on the ESA’s Rocket Science blog.
“Today, everyone in Europe relies on the US military for space debris orbit data – we lack the radar network and other detectors needed to perform independent tracking and monitoring of objects in space,” said Krag. “This is needed to allow meaningful European participation in the global efforts for space safety.”
While predicting when and where space debris will reenter our atmosphere may not yet be an exact science, it does have one thing going for it – its 100% safety record. And as the Tiangong-1 descent showed, early warning and active tracking ensure that potential threats are recognized well in advance.
In the meantime, be sure to enjoy this video on the Space Debris Office’s reentry monitoring, courtesy of the ESA:
Further Reading: ESA