There’s a 1 in 20 Chance That Two Dead Satellites Might Crash Tonight (Update: No Collision)

Update. It looks like we didn’t roll a 1 on the d20, and the satellites passed each other without an impact. But this will probably become a more common occurrence as the skies get more crowded.

Over sixty years of space exploration have left their mark in Low Earth Orbit (LEO), where thousands of objects create the risk of collisions. These objects include the spent first stages of rockets, fragments of broken-up spacecraft, and satellites that are no longer operational. As Donald Kessler predicted, the growing presence of “space junk” could result in regular collisions, leading to a cascading effect (aka. Kessler Syndrome).

This evening – on Wednesday, Jan. 29th – such a collision might take place. These satellites are the Infrared Astronomical Satellite (IRAS), an old space telescope launched by NASA, the Netherlands, and the UK; and the GGSE-4 gravitational experiment launched by the US Air Force. These two satellites run the risk of colliding when their orbits cross paths at 06:40 p.m. EST (03:40 p.m. PST) about 900 km (560 mi) above Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.

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A Cubesat Deployed a De-Orbiting Tether and Now it’s Losing Altitude 24 Times Faster than Before

A company called Tethers Unlimited has deployed its de-orbiting tether in a successful test on the Prox-1 satellite. The satellite is one of four that are carrying the device, called the Terminator Tape. Rather than stay in space for years or decades, and add to the growing problem of space debris, Prox-1 is using its Terminator Tape to slowly lower its orbit.

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Can We Use Special Sails To Bring Old Satellites Back Down To Earth?

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?

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Satellites Equipped With a Tether Would be Able to De-Orbit Themselves at the end of Their Life

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.

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Before We Ruin the Universe, We Should Follow Some Space Sustainability Guidelines

There are over 20,000 objects in orbit around Earth that are larger than 10 cm. Image Credit: European Space Agency.

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.

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British Satellite Tests its Space Junk Harpoon

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.

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Micrometeorite Damage Under the Microscope

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”

A New Solution to the Space Junk Problem. Spacecraft with Plasma Beams to Force Space Junk to Burn Up

A satellite using a bi-directional plasma thruster can direct one beam at space junk, sending it harmlessly into Earth's atmosphere. The other opposite beam can stabilize the position of the satellite itself. Image: Takahashi et. al. 2018.

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.

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A Satellite With a Harpoon, Net and Drag Sail to Capture Space Junk is in Orbit and Will be Tested Soon

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.

Further Reading: Spaceflight Now, RemoveDEBRIS

Musk Says that SpaceX will use a Giant Party Balloon to Bring an Upper Stage Back. Wait, what?

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 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:

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:

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