Researchers look to track and mitigate the growing number of space junk objects around the Moon.
It’s getting crowded up there. An increase in military, commercial and scientific launches, coupled with a lower cost for rideshare cubesat launches, means lots more space junk to deal with in coming years. And we’re not just talking about low Earth orbit; the Moon and cis-lunar (near lunar space) is about to become busy as well.
In a few years, NASA and the ESA will conduct the long-awaited Mars Sample Return (MSR) mission. This mission will consist of a lander that will pick up the samples, an ascent vehicle that will send them to orbit, an orbiter that will return them to Earth, and an entry vehicle that will send them to the surface. This will be the first time samples obtained directly from Mars will be returned to Earth for analysis. The research this will enable is expected to yield new insights into the history of Mars and how it evolved to become what we see today.
Returning these samples safely to Earth requires that protective measures be implemented at every step, including transfer, ascent, transit, and re-entry. This is especially true when it comes to the Earth Entry System (EES), the disk-shaped vehicle that will re-enter Earth’s atmosphere at the end of the mission. In addition to a heat shield, engineers at NASA’s White Sands Test Facility (WSTF) near Las Cruces, New Mexico, are busy testing shielding that will protect the vehicle from micrometeorites and space debris during transit back to Earth and during re-entry.
Scientists at the Shanghai Academy of Spaceflight Technology (SAST) have devised an ingenious way to combat the growing problem of space debris. The team fitted a drag sail to a Long March 2 rocket and successfully launched it in July this year. Rocket launches often leave discarded booster stages in low-earth orbit, adding to the pollution of near-earth space. The pilot testing for the sail came as a surprise to many space agencies when, a day after the rocket’s launch, the 25 square meters deorbiting sail was unfolded.
A Chinese Long March 5B rocket first stage made an uncontrolled, fiery reentry through Earth’s atmosphere over Southeast Asia today (Saturday), six days it launched a new science module to China’s Tiangong space station. While the eventual return of the booster was known, China made the decision to let it fall uncontrolled. They also did not share any tracking data, and the large size of the rocket stage drew concern about fragments possibly causing damage or casualties.
The US Space Command confirmed reentry of the debris from the roughly 30-meter-long core (100 ft.) stage of the Long March 5B occurred at 12:45 p.m. Eastern time (1645 UTC) on July 30, 2022 over the Indian Ocean.
The statistics of how people die offer a gruesome but informative way to understand both how humans perceive threats and how they react to fear. For example, you are more likely to be crushed by a falling vending machine (~13 people killed per year) than be eaten by a shark (~10 per year). However, there is one currently statistically unlikely cause of death that has a real risk of increasing dramatically in likelihood over the coming decades – falling space debris. According to a new study, there’s a 6-10% chance that someone will die from debris falling from space over the next ten years.
October 4th, 2022, will be an auspicious day as humanity celebrates the 65th anniversary of the beginning of the Space Age. It all began in 1957 with the launch of the Soviet satellite Sputnik-1, the first artificial satellite ever sent to orbit. Since that time, about 8,900 satellites have been launched from more than 40 countries worldwide. This has led to growing concerns about space debris and the hazard it represents to future constellations, spacecraft, and even habitats in Low Earth Orbit (LEO).
This has led to many proposed solutions for cleaning up “space junk,” as well as satellite designs that would allow them to deorbit and burn up. Alas, there are still questions about whether a planet surrounded by mega-constellations is sustainable over the long term. A recent study by James A. Blake, a research fellow with the University of Warwick, examined the evolution of the debris environment in LEO and assessed if future space operations can be conducted sustainably.
A Chinese satellite pulled a defunct navigation satellite out of the way of other satellites on January 22nd. The satellite, called SJ-21, appeared to operate as a space tug when it grappled onto the navigation satellite from the Chinese CompassG2 network. The operation details didn’t come from Chinese authorities but a report by ExoAnalytic Solutions, a commercial space monitoring company.
Chinese authorities are tight-lipped about the operation, but what can observations tell us about Chinese capabilities?
At their South Texas Launch Facility, just outside of the village of Boca Chica, SpaceX is gearing up to test the Super Heavy, the booster element of their Starship launch system. This massive reusable first stage rocket will be responsible for sending the Starship orbital vehicle to space, where it will deliver satellites to orbit, payloads and people to the Moon, and (if all goes as planned) the first human settlers to Mars.
According to a recent statement issued by SpaceX founder Musk Musk, the Starship could also be used to “chomp up debris” in Earth orbit. As usual, the statement was issued via Twitter, where Musk was once again addressing questions posted by followers and fans. The topic arose after Musk shared the latest updates about Starlink, one of a handful of satellite constellations that are bringing broadband internet services to every corner of the planet.
The International Space Station’s robotic arm, Canadarm2, was struck by a piece of space debris. But luckily, it appears to be only a flesh wound, and the arm has been cleared for nominal operations while analysis on the strike continues.