As long as human beings have been sending satellites into space, they have been contemplating ways to destroy them. In recent years, the technology behind anti-satellite (ASAT) weapons has progressed considerably. What’s more, the ability to launch and destroy them extends beyond the two traditional superpowers (the US and Russia) to include newcomers like India, China, and others.
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?
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.
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:
Orbital debris (aka. space junk) is one of the greatest problems facing space agencies today. After sixty years of sending rockets, boosters and satellites into space, the situation in the Low Earth Orbit (LEO) has become rather crowded. Given how fast debris in orbit can travel, even the tiniest bits of junk can pose a major threat to the International Space Station and threaten still-active satellites.
It’s little wonder then why ever major space agency on the planet is committed to monitoring orbital debris and creating countermeasures for it. So far, proposals have ranged from giant magnets and nets and harpoons to lasers. Given their growing presence in space, China is also considering developing giant space-based lasers as a possible means for combating junk in orbit.
For the sake of their study, the team conducted numerical simulations to see if an orbital station with a high-powered pulsed laser could make a dent in orbital debris. Based on their assessments of the velocity and trajectories of space junk, they found that an orbiting laser that had the same Right Ascension of Ascending Node (RAAN) as the debris itself would be effective at removing it. As they state in their paper:
“The simulation results show that, debris removal is affected by inclination and RAAN, and laser station with the same inclination and RAAN as debris has the highest removal efficiency. It provides necessary theoretical basis for the deployment of space-based laser station and the further application of space debris removal by using space-based laser.”
This is not the first time that directed-energy has been considered as a possible means of removing space debris. However, the fact that China is investigating directed-energy for the sake of debris removal is an indication of the nation’s growing presence in space. It also seems appropriate since China is considered to be one of the worst offenders when to comes to producing space junk.
Back in 2007, China conducted a anti-satellite missile test that resulted in the creation over 3000 of bits of dangerous debris. This debris cloud was the largest ever tracked, and caused significant damage to a Russian satellite in 2013. Much of this debris will remain in orbit for decades, posing a significant threat to satellites, the ISS and other objects in LEO.
Of course, there are those who fear that the deployment of lasers to LEO will mean the militarization of space. In accordance with the 1966 Outer Space Treaty, which was designed to ensure that the space exploration did not become the latest front in the Cold War, all signatories agreed to “not place nuclear weapons or other weapons of mass destruction in orbit or on celestial bodies or station them in outer space in any other manner.”
In the 1980s, China was added to the treaty and is therefore bound to its provisions. But back in March of 2017, US General John Hyten indicated in an interview with CNN that China’s attempts to develop space-based laser arrays constitutes a possible breach of this treaty:
“They’ve been building weapons, testing weapons, building weapons to operate from the Earth in space, jamming weapons, laser weapons, and they have not kept it secret. They’re building those capabilities to challenge the United States of America, to challenge our allies…We cannot allow that to happen.”
Such concerns are quite common, and represent a bit of a stumbling block when it comes to the use of directed-energy platforms in space. While orbital lasers would be immune to atmospheric interference, thus making them much more effective at removing space debris, they would also lead to fears that these lasers could be turned towards enemy satellites or stations in the event of war.
As always, space is subject to the politics of Earth. At the same time, it also presents opportunities for cooperation and mutual assistance. And since space debris represents a common problem and threatens any and all plans for the exploration of space and the colonization of LEO, cooperative efforts to address it are not only desirable but necessary.
Since the 1960s, NASA and other space agencies have been sending more and more stuff into orbit. Between the spent stages of rockets, spent boosters, and satellites that have since become inactive, there’s been no shortage of artificial objects floating up there. Over time, this has created the significant (and growing) problem of space debris, which poses a serious threat to the International Space Station (ISS), active satellites and spacecraft.
While the larger pieces of debris – ranging from 5 cm (2 inches) to 1 meter (1.09 yards) in diameter – are regularly monitored by NASA and other space agencies, the smaller pieces are undetectable. Combined with how common these small bits of debris are, this makes objects that measure about 1 millimeter in size a serious threat. To address this, the ISS is relying on a new instrument known as the Space Debris Sensor (SDS).
This calibrated impact sensor, which is mounted on the exterior of the station, monitors impacts caused by small-scale space debris. The sensor was incorporated into the ISS back in September, where it will monitor impacts for the next two to three years. This information will be used to measure and characterize the orbital debris environment and help space agencies develop additional counter-measures.
Measuring about 1 square meter (~10.76 ft²), the SDS is mounted on an external payload site which faces the velocity vector of the ISS. The sensor consists of a thin front layer of Kapton – a polyimide film that remains stable at extreme temperatures – followed by a second layer located 15 cm (5.9 inches) behind it. This second Kapton layer is equipped with acoustic sensors and a grid of resistive wires, followed by a sensored-embedded backstop.
This configuration allows the sensor to measure the size, speed, direction, time, and energy of any small debris it comes into contact with. While the acoustic sensors measure the time and location of a penetrating impact, the grid measures changes in resistance to provide size estimates of the impactor. The sensors in the backstop also measure the hole created by an impactor, which is used to determine the impactor’s velocity.
This data is then examined by scientists at the White Sands Test Facility in New Mexico and at the University of Kent in the UK, where hypervelocity tests are conducted under controlled conditions. As Dr. Mark Burchell, one of the co-investigators and collaborators on the SDS from the University of Kent, told Universe Today via email:
“The idea is a multi layer device. You get a time as you pass through each layer. By triangulating signals in a layer you get position in that layer. So two times and positions give a velocity… If you know the speed and direction you can get the orbit of the dust and that can tell you if it likely comes from deep space (natural dust) or is in a similar earth orbit to satellites so is likely debris. All this in real time as it is electronic.”
This data will improve safety aboard the ISS by allowing scientists to monitor the risks of collisions and generate more accurate estimates of how small-scale debris exists in space. As noted, the larger pieces of debris in orbit are monitored regularly. These consists of the roughly 20,000 objects that are about the size of a baseball, and an additional 50,000 that are about the size of a marble.
However, the SDS is focused on objects that are between 50 microns and 1 millimeter in diameter, which number in the millions. Though tiny, the fact that these objects move at speeds of over 28,000 km/h (17,500 mph) means that they can still cause significant damage to satellites and spacecraft. By being able to get a sense of these objects and how their population is changing in real-time, NASA will be able to determine if the problem of orbital debris is getting worse.
Knowing what the debris situation is like up there is also intrinsic to finding ways to mitigate it. This will not only come in handy when it comes to operations aoard the ISS, but in the coming years when the Space Launch System (SLS) and Orion capsule take to space. As Burchell added, knowing how likely collisions will be, and what kinds of damage they may cause, will help inform spacecraft design – particularly where shielding is concerned.
“[O]nce you know the hazard you can adjust the design of future missions to protect them from impacts, or you are more persuasive when telling satellite manufacturers they have to create less debris in future,” he said. “Or you know if you really need to get rid of old satellites/ junk before it breaks up and showers earth orbit with small mm scale debris.”
Dr. Jer Chyi Liou, in addition to being a co-investigator on the SDS, is also the NASA Chief Scientist for Orbital Debris and the Program Manager for the Orbital Debris Program Office at the Johnson Space Center. As he explained to Universe Today via email:
“The millimeter-sized orbital debris objects represent the highest penetration risk to the majority of operational spacecraft in low Earth orbit (LEO). The SDS mission will serve two purposes. First, the SDS will collect useful data on small debris at the ISS altitude. Second, the mission will demonstrate the capabilities of the SDS and enable NASA to seek mission opportunities to collect direct measurement data on millimeter-sized debris at higher LEO altitudes in the future – data that will be needed for reliable orbital debris impact risk assessments and cost-effective mitigation measures to better protect future space missions in LEO.”
The results from this experiment build upon previous information obtained by the Space Shuttle program. When the shuttles returned to Earth, teams of engineers inspected hardware that underwent collisions to determine the size and impact velocity of debris. The SDS is also validating the viability of impact sensor technology for future missions at higher altitudes, where risks from debris to spacecraft are greater than at the ISS altitude.
Orbital debris, otherwise known as “space junk”, is a major concern. This massive cloud that orbits the Earth is the result of the many satellites, platforms and spent launchers that have been sent into space over the years. And as time went on, collisions between these objects (as well as disintegrations and erosion) has created even more in the way of debris.
One of the worst things that can happen during an orbital mission is an impact. Near-Earth orbit is literally filled with debris and particulate matter that moves at very high speeds. At worst, a collision with even the smallest object can have catastrophic consequences. At best, it can delay a mission as technicians on the ground try to determine the damage and correct for it.
This was the case when, on August 23rd, the European Space Agency’s Sentinel-1A satellite was hit by a particle while it orbited the Earth. And after several days of reviewing the data from on-board cameras, ground controllers have determined what the culprit was, identified the affected area, and concluded that it has not interrupted the satellite’s operations.
The Sentinel-1A mission was the first satellite to be launched as part of the ESA’s Copernicus program – which is the worlds largest single earth observation program to date. Since it was deployed in 2014, Sentinel-1A has been monitoring Earth using its C-band Synthetic Aperture Radar, which allows for crystal clear images regardless of weather or light conditions.
In addition to tracking oil spills and mapping sea ice, the satellite has also been monitoring the movement of land surfaces. Recently, it provided invaluable insight into the earthquake in Italy that claimed at least 290 lives and caused widespread damage. These images were used by emergency aid organizations to assist in evacuations, and scientists have begun to analyze them for indications of how the quake occurred.
The first indication that something was wrong came on Tuesday, August 23rd, at 17:07 GMT (10:07 PDT, 13:07 EDT), when controllers noted a small power reduction. At the time, the satellite was at an altitude of 700 km, and slight changes in it’s orientation and orbit were also noticed.
After conducting a preliminary investigation, the operations team at the ESA’s control center hypothesized that the satellite’s solar wing had suffered from an impact with a tiny object. After reviewing footage from the on-board cameras, they spotted a 40 cm hole in one of the solar panels, which was consistent with the impact of a fragment measuring less than 5 mm in size.
However, the power loss was not sufficient to interrupt operations, and the ESA was quick to allay fears that this would result in any interruptions of the Sentinel-1A‘s mission. They also indicated that the object’s small size prevented them from advanced warning.
As Holger Krag – Head of the Space Debris Office at ESA’s establishment in Darmstadt, Germany – said in an agency press release:
“Such hits, caused by particles of millimeter size, are not unexpected. These very small objects are not trackable from the ground, because only objects greater than about 5 cm can usually be tracked and, thus, avoided by maneuvering the satellites. In this case, assuming the change in attitude and the orbit of the satellite at impact, the typical speed of such a fragment, plus additional parameters, our first estimates indicate that the size of the particle was of a few millimeters.
While it is not clear if the object came from a spent rocket or dead satellite, or was merely a tiny clump of rock, Krag indicated that they are determined to find out. “Analysis continues to obtain indications on whether the origin of the object was natural or man-made,” he said. “The pictures of the affected area show a diameter of roughly 40 cm created on the solar array structure, confirming an impact from the back side, as suggested by the satellite’s attitude rate readings.”
In the meantime, the ESA expects that Sentinel-1A will be back online shortly and doing the job for which it was intended. Beyond monitoring land movements, land use, and oil spills, Sentinel-1A also provides up-to-date information in order to help relief workers around the world respond to natural disasters and humanitarian crises.
The Sentinel-1 satellites, part of the European Union’s Copernicus Program, are operated by ESA on behalf of the European Commission.
It is known as the Cupola, an observation and work area that was installed aboard the International Space Station in 2010. In addition to giving the crew ample visibility to support the control of the Station’s robotic arms, it is also the best seat in the house when it comes to viewing Earth, celestial objects and visiting vehicles. Little wonder then why sp many breathtaking pictures have been taken from inside it over the years.
So you can imagine how frustrating it must be for the crew when a tiny artificial object (aka. space debris) collides with the Cupola’s windows and causes it to chip. And thanks to astronaut Tim Peake and a recent photo he chose to share with the world, people here on Earth are able to see just how this looks from the receiving end for the first time.
So, just how do we keep our space stations, ships and astronauts from being riddled with holes from all of the space junk in orbit around Earth?
We revel in the terror grab bag of all the magical ways to get snuffed in space. Almost as much as we celebrate the giant brass backbones of the people who travel there.
We’ve already talked about all the scary ways that astronauts can die in space. My personal recurring “Hail Mary full of grace, please don’t let me die in space” nightmare is orbital debris.
We’re talking about a vast collection of spent rockets, dead satellites, flotsam, jetsam, lagan and derelict. It’s not a short list. NASA figures there are 21,000 bits of junk bigger than 10 cm, 500,000 particles between 1 and 10 cm, and more than 100 million smaller than 1 cm. Sound familiar, humans? This is our high tech, sci fi great Pacific garbage patch.
Sure, a tiny rivet or piece of scrap foil doesn’t sound very dangerous, but consider the fact that astronauts are orbiting the Earth at a velocity of about 28,000 km/h. And the Tang packets, uneaten dehydrated ice cream, and astronaut poops are also traveling at 28,000 km/h. Then think about what happens when they collide. Yikes… or yuck.
Here’s the International Space Station’s solar array. See that tiny hole? Embiggen and clarinosticate! That’s a tiny puncture hole made in the array by a piece of orbital crap.
The whole station is pummeled by tiny pieces of space program junk drawer contents. Back when the Space Shuttle was flying, NASA had to constantly replace their windows because of the damage they were experiencing from the orbital equivalent of Dennis the Menace hurling paint chips, fingernail clippings, and frozen scabs.
That’s just little pieces of paint. What can NASA do to keep Sandra Bullock safe from the larger, more dangerous chunks that could tear the station a new entry hatch?
For starters, NASA and the US Department of Defense are constantly tracking as much of the orbital debris that they can. They know the position of every piece of debris larger than a softball. Which I think, as far as careers go, would be grossly underestimated for its coolness and complexity at a cocktail party.
“What do you do for a living?”
“Me, oh, I’m part of the program which tracks orbital debris to keep astronauts safe.”
“So…you track our space garbage?”
“Uh, actually, never mind, I’m an accountant.”
Furthermore, they’re tracking everything in low Earth orbit – where the astronauts fly – down to a size of 5 cm. That’s 21,000 discrete objects.
NASA then compares the movements of all these objects and compares it to the position of the Space Station. If there’s any risk of a collision, NASA takes preventative measures and moves the Space Station to avoid the debris.
The ISS has thrusters of its own, but it can also use the assistance of spacecraft which are docked to it at the time, such as a Russian Soyuz capsule.
NASA is ready to make these maneuvers at a moment’s notice if necessary, but often they’ll have a few days notice, and give the astronauts time to prepare. Plus, who doesn’t love a close call?
For example, in some alerts, the astronauts have gotten into their Soyuz escape craft, ready to abandon the Station if there’s a catastrophic impact. And if they have even less warning, the astronauts have to just hunker down in some of the Station’s more sturdy regions and wait out the debris flyby.
This isn’t speculation and overcautious nannying on NASA’s part. In 2009 an Iridium communications satellite was smashed by a dead Russian Kosmos-2251 military satellite. The collision destroyed both satellites instantly. As icing on this whirling, screaming metallic orbital-terror-cake, it added 2,000 new chunks of debris to the growing collection.
Most material was in a fairly low orbit, and much of it has already been slowed down by the Earth’s atmosphere and burned up.
This wasn’t the first time two star-crossed satellites with a love that could-not-be had a shrapnel fountain suicide pact, and I promise it won’t be the last. Each collision adds to the total amount of debris in orbit, and increases the risk of a run-away cascade of orbital collisions.
We should never underestimate the bravery and commitment of astronauts. They strap themselves to massive explosion tubes and weather the metal squalls of earth orbit in tiny steel life-rafts. So, would you be willing to risk all that debris for a chance to fly in orbit? Tell us in the comments below.
We’ve written extensively about the orbital debris problem here on Universe Today. In a nutshell, just about every time we launch something from Earth there are bits and pieces that are left behind. Screws. Paint flecks. Sometimes bigger pieces from rocket stages, or at worst, dysfunctional satellites.
Added to the list of lasers, magnets, robot hands and other ideas to get space junk out of orbit is a new one from NASA — gecko grippers. Yes, lizard hands. The idea is by using techniques from these animal appendages, we might be able to efficiently snag dead satellites or other debris at low cost.
Space debris is all whizzing above us and puts us at risk for devastating crashes that can create a sort of prison of debris for any spacecraft hoping to fly above the atmosphere. We’ve already had to move the shuttle and International Space Station due to threats, and the fear is as more satellites reach space, the problem will get worse.
Here’s what NASA has to say about the idea, which is led by Aaron Parness, a robotics researcher at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory:
The gripping system … was inspired by geckos, lizards that cling to walls with ease. Geckos’ feet have branching arrays of tiny hairs, the smallest of which are hundreds of times thinner than a human hair. This system of hairs can conform to a rough surface without a lot of force. Although researchers cannot make a perfect replica of the gecko foot, they have put “hair” structures on the adhesive pads of the grippers.
The grippers were put through their paces in a simulated microgravity test in August (recently highlighted on NASA’s website). On a plane that flew parabolas with brief “weightless” periods, the grippers managed to grab on to a 20-pound cube and a 250-pound researcher-plus-spacecraft-material-panels combination.
The key limitation was researchers actually held on to their invention themselves, but eventually they hope to use a robotic leg or arm to achieve the same purpose. Meanwhile, on the ground, the grippers have been used on dozens of spacecraft surfaces in a vacuum and in temperatures simulating what you’d find in orbit.
There’s no guarantee that the system itself will make it to space, as it’s still in the early stages of testing. But in a statement, Parness said he thinks it’s possible that “our system might one day contribute to a solution.” NASA also said these could be used for small satellites to attach to the space station, but development would need to move quickly in that case. The station is only guaranteed to be in use until 2020, with possible extension to 2024.