A Fiery End for Kosmos 1315 Over Hawaii

Reentry of Kosmos-1315 captured by Joshua Lambus. Click here to see the full video.

A relic of the Cold War surprised beach-goers and Hawaiian islands residents Sunday night, as Kosmos-1315 reentered the Earth’s atmosphere in a dramatic display.

The reentry occurred right around 11:00 PM Sunday night on August 30th local time (Hawaii is 10 hours behind Universal Time). Folks in the satellite tracking community had been following the predicted reentry for some time, which was projected for August 31st at 10:56 UT +/- an hour. That puts the Hawaii sighting right at the beginning of the window.

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Kosmos-1315 reenters over the Pacific Ocean near Hawaii. Image credit: Lance Owens
“We were outside, about 11:00. I have a TV outside on our lanai (deck) and we had watched the 10:00 news, when we were just wrapping it up for the evening,” Hawaiian resident Lance Owens told Universe Today. “My wife sees this unreal thing in the sky. Our first description was it looked like someone dragging a “sparkler” across our sky like those old spaceship movies. It took at least a minute to get across our skyline. It appeared to be breaking up right in front of our eyes. I did not hear any boom, but the visuals were incredible!”
Image credit
A close-up of the reentry of Kosmos 1315 from Sunday night. Image credit: Lance Owens

Kosmos 1315 (Sometimes listed as Cosmos 1315) was an electronic signal intelligence (ELINT) satellite launched from the Plesetsk Cosmodrome in the then Soviet Union on October 13th, 1981. First developed in the late 1960s, Kosmos 1315 was a typical Tselina-D type component of the two-satellite Tselina ELINT system. Kosmos 1315 was launched atop a Vostok-2M rocket, the booster for which still remains in orbit today as NORAD ID 1981-103B. Kosmos 1315 was in a 533 x 574 km low Earth orbit.

Long-time satellite tracker Ted Molczan has been compiling a list of reentries that goes back to the dawn of the Space Age, and notes that this was the 256th reentry sighting he’s confirmed in his cataloging effort.

“Objects launched by Russia account for 205 sightings or 80 percent, followed by the U.S., which accounts for 40 sightings or 16 percent. China, Europe and Japan account for the remaining 4 percent,” Molczan told Universe Today. “Considering the vast areas of the Earth that have been under-reported, the total number of reentries seen during the Space Age probably is between 500 and 1000, the large majority lost to history.”

This was a fine example of a classic reentry versus a typical fireball or meteor train. Satellites typically have a slower reentry velocity, and you can see this in several of the videos captured of the event. Most fireball captures come from security and dashboard cams (remember Chelyabinsk?) or cameras that are already up and running recording another event, such as a concert or a football game. The famous Peekskill meteor in 1992 was captured in the background during a high school football game. Remember, during Chelyabinsk, the very first images of the event were from dashcams; minutes later, after everyone rushed to aim their hastily deployed mobile phone cameras at the contrail, we got the recordings of the blast wave.  The very fact that several folks grabbed their phones and managed to capture the reentry in progress on Sunday night (how fast can YOU have your phone out, camera running?) speaks to the slow, stately traverse typical of a satellite reentry.

The position of Kosmos-1315 at 9:17 UT. Image credit: Orbitron
The position of Kosmos-1315 at 9:17 UT. Image credit: Orbitron

…and folks on social media often try to get in on the hype during a breaking story involving a meteor train or fireball event. Feel free to try to be creative, but trust us, we’ve seen ‘em all. Some ‘meteor wrongs’ (to paraphrase Meteorite Man Geoff Notkin) that typically get recycled and advertised as new videos are: the reentries of Mir, Hayabasa, the aforementioned Peekskill event, Chelyabinsk, and screen grabs from the film Armageddon.

A typical Tselina-D style Kosmos series satellite. Image credit: Yuzhnoye Design
A typical Tselina-D style Kosmos series satellite. Image credit: Yuzhnoye Design

“As is common with reentries, a few people reported the phenomenon as a UFO. A couple of witnesses perceived the glowing fragments as individual craft of some kind,” Molczan told Universe Today. “Satellite orbits closely follow the curvature of the Earth’s surface, and they continue to do so as they begin their final descent during reentry. As reentry proceeds, velocity is lost due to drag, causing the descent to gradually become steeper, but to an observer, the motion appears to be nearly horizontal. By the time an object descends below about 30 kilometers, it will have lost nearly all of its forward velocity, and from there, any surviving fragments will descend almost vertically to the Earth.”

This final descent is similar to what’s known as ‘dark flight’ prior to a meteorite impact.

And though we usually get a few high interest reentries such as Phobos-Grunt or UARS every year, space junk is reentering worldwide weekly. The Aerospace Corp. keeps a running list of upcoming reentries, and the See-Sat-L message board is a great source of fast-breaking news.

It’s definitely a space junk shooting gallery out there. Keep those smartphones charged up and handy, and keep watching the skies!

How Do Astronauts Avoid Debris?

How Do Astronauts Avoid Debris?

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.

Artist's impression of debris in low Earth orbit. Credit: ESA
Artist’s impression of debris in low Earth orbit. Credit: ESA

“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.

The Iridium constellation - a robust satellite network (Iridium)
The Iridium constellation – a robust satellite network (Iridium)

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.

Could Lizard Hands Help Us Clean Up Space Junk?

Image of a gecko foot, whose ability to stick on to surfaces inspired NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory to develop a possible space debris snagging system. Credit: Wikimedia Commons

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.

NASA-funded researchers test "gecko grippers" on a simulated-microgravity flight to see how effective they could be for snagging satellites. Here, a researcher has strapped spacecraft-like panels to his body to perform the test. Credit: NASA/YouTube (screenshot)
NASA-funded researchers test “gecko grippers” on a simulated-microgravity flight to see how effective they could be for snagging satellites. Here, a researcher has strapped spacecraft-like panels to his body to perform the test. Credit: NASA/YouTube (screenshot)

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.

Source: Jet Propulsion Laboratory

How Can We Clean Up That Space Junk?

How Can We Clean Up That Space Junk?

We’re total litterbugs. Here on Earth, and out in space. What are some strategies that have been developed to clean up all that junk in space and make it safer to explore?

Humans are great at lots of things. We’ve built amazing landmarks, great works of art, and have a legacy of unique cultures and languages spanning the globe…

We’re also great at not cleaning up after ourselves. As if the oceanic garbage patches weren’t enough, humans are actually filling space with junk too.

That’s okay, right? Space might be infinite, and if you average the amount of stuff we know about versus the amount of space, there’s barely anything out there at all. Space can handle all that junk, right? Right? Sure it can! Space is just fine. Don’t you worry for one second about space. Space is big. Sure it’d kill us in a heartbeat, but it’s got no feelings to hurt! It’s just space!

Now I’m going to encourage you to be a little selfish, as this actually a problem for us. I know, it’s hard to believe that somehow, with our baked-in levels of neglect, we’re creating a global problem for us and future generations. I feel like this our thing now. It’s what defines us. Our littering up of space might prevent humans from ever being able to escape our planet again.

Here’s the deal. In the decades that humans have been launching stuff into space, nobody ever thought too hard about what we should do about our rockets and satellites after we’re done with them. It’s not like you can ever fill up space.

Astronomers are currently tracking 19,000 individual objects larger than 5 cm, and there are likely more than 300,000 objects smaller than 1 cm. All this stuff sticks around and continues to orbit the Earth. Over time debris collides with more debris, creating smaller and smaller pieces of space junk.

Some scientists are concerned that we might reach a point where this junk forms an impenetrable shield of shrieking metal around the Earth, that would tear apart any spacecraft that tries to leave our planet. I like to call this the “Spacelitter Singularity”. It’s an unstoppable cascade of collisions and chaos that converts the area around the Earth into a relentless blender of progressively smaller and smaller high velocity projectiles. Which would be bad.

Image plot of space junk. Image credit: NASA
Image plot of space junk. Image credit: NASA

So, how do we avoid that? How can we minimize the amount of space junk we throw into orbit? And how can get rid of the garbage that’s already out there? For starters, anyone launching stuff into space needs to minimize the amount of debris they generate. Rockets should maneuver back into the atmosphere to burn up. Astronauts need to keep track of their tools and gloves.

Engineers would also need to plan out what will happen to their spacecraft at the end of their lives. Instead of letting them just die, mission controllers need to be able to maneuver spacecraft into a safer parking orbit, or alternately, back into the atmosphere.

Something will need to be done with the space junk that’s already out there, chopping itself into smaller and smaller pieces. One idea is to have a one-up, one-down policy rule for companies. For every spacecraft they launch, they collect and de-orbit another spacecraft in roughly the same orbit. Or we could create a special junk removal spacecraft.

Space Junk.  Image credit:  Jonas Bendiksen/Eurasianet.org
Space Junk. Image credit: Jonas Bendiksen/Eurasianet.org

These would use efficient ion engines to track and dock with pieces of space junk, collecting them together. Once the spacecraft had collected enough material, or run out of fuel, it could be safely de-orbited, or possibly transform into garbage truck Voltron.

The most awesome idea I’ve come across is to build a space-based laser system that could target and fire on pieces of space debris as they go by. Small pieces would be vaporized, and larger objects would be slowed down as the vaporization would act as a decelerating thrust, lowering their orbit. That’s right, one solution is to build a real life game of Asteroids.

Once again, a lack of forethought has a created a problem that will trouble future generations. Getting into space in the first place is super hard, and cleaning it up is going to take more work than we ever thought.

What do you think? How should we clean up space to make it safe for future generations of space faring humans? Tell us in the comments below.

And if you like what you see, come check out our Patreon page and find out how you can get these videos early while helping us bring you more great content!

How Could We Recycle Satellites For Newer Missions?

Artist's conception of ESA's OTS-2 telecom satellite, which was retired from geostationary orbit in 1991 after nearly 13 years of service. Credit: ESA

Space junk is an ongoing concern for NASA, the European Space Agency and many others. After satellites live out their useful lives in orbit, more and more the agencies are trying to either move them far away from Earth, or to have the satellites burn up in the atmosphere. That’s basically to preserve orbital slots around the planet for others, and to reduce the risk of collisions.

But here’s an alternate approach — why not leave a few satellites handy for other missions to pick up? ESA recently opened a tender exploring this idea, and put a few thoughts out in a press release. Maybe leftover solid rocket fuel could be re-used. Metal alloys could be ground down for potential 3-D printing materials. Life support systems could use biodegradable materials. Since it costs so much to haul stuff into orbit, maybe it might be worthwhile to leave some available for future missions, ESA reasons.

Image plot of space junk. Image credit: NASA
Image plot of space junk. Image credit: NASA

“ESA’s new invitation for ‘Sustainable Materials Concepts’ is seeking companies to study various concepts of this approach, including considering the kinds of materials that could be reused as biological or technical nutrients – serving as resources for new other processes,” ESA stated.

“Also under consideration: what sustainable materials might replace current space-grade materials such as titanium and aluminium alloys or carbon-fibre epoxy resins? And how might the use of materials as biological or technical nutrients work in practice?”

What do you think satellites could be used for? Leave your thoughts in the comments.

Bazinga: Mysterious Earth Orbiting Asteroid Turns Out to be Space Junk

The launch of Chan'ge-2 with 3rd stage (arrowed) now known as 2010 Q (Credit CALT).

Can’t find asteroid 2010 QW1 in the Minor Planet Database? No, the “Men in Black” didn’t secretly remove this Earth-orbiting asteroid from the listing… but recent top-notch detective work by astronomers did.

The mystery of this object all started back on August 23rd of this year, when the PanSTARRS sky survey based on the summit of Haleakala on the island of Maui in Hawai’i spotted an asteroid that was given the provisional designation of 2013 QW1.

The object was in a wide-ranging orbit around the Earth, leading astronomers to wonder if it was a naturally captured asteroid or perhaps space debris from a previous launch. Either solution to the dilemma would be fascinating. Our large Moon keeps the Earth pretty well swept clear of debris, though a “second Moon,” however small, would be an interesting find. And if 2013 QW1 were to prove artificial, it just might be a piece of history.

The European Space Agency’s NEO Coordination Centre decided to take up the challenge. A call went out to track and observe the 2013 QW1, and a team led by Elisabetta Dotto of INAF-Observatorio di Roma & Maria Barucci & Davide Perna of the Observatoire de Paris managed to get time on the Italian Telescopio Nazaionale Galileo based at La Palma to obtain a spectrum of the object.

“It was a bit of a challenge, because the object was moving fast with respect to a typical NEO,” said Dr. Perna in a recent ESA press release.

The team used an instrument known as DOLORES to make the crucial measurements. DOLORES stands for the Device Optimized for LOw RESolution. The spectrum obtained in the early morning hours of August 25th shows something much brighter than your typical asteroid, but is characteristic of a painted metallic object.

The launch of Chan'ge-2 with 3rd stage (arrowed) now known as 2010 Q (Credit CALT).
The launch of Chan’ge-2 with 3rd stage (arrowed) now known as 2013 QW1 (Credit: CALT).

And thus, 2013 QW1 was removed from the ledger of NEO asteroids maintained by the IAU Minor Planet Center (MPEC). And the leading suspect? The third stage booster of a Chinese Long March 3C rocket that launched the Chang’e 2 spacecraft from Xichang, China on October 1st, 2010.

Chang’e-2 entered lunar orbit 8 days after launch, and departed on June 8th of the following year after studying and mapping the Moon. Chang’e-2 then went on to become the first spacecraft to directly reach the L2 Lagrange point 1.5 million kilometres beyond Earth from lunar orbit. The spacecraft also made the first flyby of NEO asteroid 4179 Toutatis on December 13th of last year. The probe is estimated to continue functioning into 2014, and will be used to hone China’s ability to track objects in deep space.

The NORAD tracking identification assigned to the 3rd stage booster that launched Chan’ge-2 is 2010-50B.

This sort of discovery is not without precedent.

The launch of Apollo 12, with the 2nd stage arrowed. (Credit: NASA).
The launch of Apollo 12, with the 3rd stage (arrowed) would one day be “asteroid Joo2E3”. (Credit: NASA).

On September 3rd, 2002, amateur astronomer Bill Yeung discovered an asteroid tentatively designated J002E3. Subsequent studies revealed that the asteroid had a spectrum consistent with that of titanium oxide paint, a decidedly unasteroid-like coating for a space rock to sport. This was, however, a common veneer in use during the Apollo era, and it is now known that J002E3 is the S-IVB third stage booster that launched the second mission to land men on the Moon on November 14th, 1969. Unlike other boosters, such as the one that launched Apollo 14, the Apollo 12 3rd stage did not impact the Moon as part of seismic experiments. After a brief period as a “pseudo-moon” of the Earth, J002E3 was kicked out into solar orbit in June 2003 and may return to our neighborhood once again in the 2040s.     

NASA’s Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter has documented the lunar crash sites of these historic boosters. It’s of note that the Apollo 10 Lunar Module Snoopy remains discarded out in solar orbit as well, having been used as a dress rehearsal for the historic Apollo 11 landing. Apollo 10 never landed on the Moon. Efforts have been made by UK astronomer Nick Howes to recover it as well.

And there are more relics of the Space Age awaiting discovery. One of the first things we always check in the case of a pass by a newly discovered NEO closer than the Moon to the Earth is its history, to see if it matches up with any launches headed out beyond Earth orbit in the past.

And the upcoming Mars launches of MAVEN and India’s Mars Orbiter Mission in October & November will be the first to depart Earth orbit since 2011. These will give future generations of asteroid hunters new human-made space hardware to ponder.

The B612 Foundation’s asteroid-hunting Sentinel Space Telescope will also “up the game,” scouting for asteroids from a vantage point interior to the Earth’s orbit. Sentinel is slated for launch in 2016 atop a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket.

And no, the fabled “Black Knight” satellite of UFO conspiracy buffs’ dreams is nowhere to be found.

What other fascinating relics of the Space Age lie are out there in the solar system, waiting to tell their tale?

The USAF’s ‘Space Fence’ Surveillance System: Another Victim of Sequestration

Space fence... Credit:

Times are getting tougher in the battle to track space debris. A key asset in the fight to follow and monitor space junk is getting the axe on October 1st of this year. United States Air Force General and commander of Air Force Space Command William Shelton has ordered that the Air Force Space Surveillance System, informally known as Space Fence will be deactivated. The General also directed all related sites across the southern United States to prepare for closure.

This shutdown will be automatically triggered due to the U.S. Air Force electing not to renew its fifth year contract with Five Rivers Services, the Colorado Springs-based LLC that was awarded the contract for the day-to-day management of the Space Fence surveillance system in 2009.

To be sure, the Space Fence system was an aging one and is overdue for an upgrade and replacement.

The Space Fence system was first brought on line in the early days of the Space Age in the 1961. Space Fence was originally known as the Naval Space Surveillance (NAVSPASUR) system until passing into the custody of the U.S. Air Force’s 20th Space Control Squadron in late 2004. Space Fence is a series of multi-static VHF receiving and transmitting sites strung out across the continental United States at latitude 33° north ranging from California to Georgia.

The Worldwide Space Surveillance Network, including Space Fence across the southern United States. (Credit: the U.S. Department of Defense).
The Worldwide Space Surveillance Network, including Space Fence across the southern United States. (Credit: the U.S. Department of Defense).

Space Fence is part of the greater Space Surveillance Network, and comprises about 40% of the overall observations of space debris and hardware in orbit carried out by the U.S. Air Force. Space Fence is also a unique asset in the battle to track space junk and dangerous debris, as it gives users an “uncued” tracking ability. This means that it’s constantly “on” and tracking objects that pass overhead without being specifically assigned to do so.

Space Fence also has the unique capability to track objects down to 10 centimeters in size out to a distance of 30,000 kilometres. For contrast, the average CubeSat is 10 centimetres on a side, and the tracking capability is out to about 67% of the distance to geosynchronous orbit.

Exact capabilities of the Space Fence have always been classified, but the master transmitter based at Lake Kickapoo, Texas is believed to be the most powerful continuous wave facility in the world, projecting at 768 kilowatts on a frequency of 216.97927 MHz. The original design plans may have called for a setup twice as powerful.

A replacement for Space Fence that will utilize a new and upgraded S-Band radar system is in the works, but ironically, that too is being held up pending review due to the sequestration. Right now, the Department of Defense is preparing for various scenarios that may see its budget slashed by 150 to 500 billion dollars over the next 10 years.

The control center display of the prototype for the next generation Space Fence. (Credit: Lockheed Martin).
The control center display of the prototype for the next generation Space Fence. (Credit: Lockheed Martin).

The U.S. Air Force has already spent $500 million to design the next generation Space Fence, and awarded contracts to Raytheon, Northrop Grumman and Lockheed Martin in 2009 for its eventual construction.

The eventual $3 billion dollar construction contract is on hold, like so many DoD programs, pending assessment by the Strategic Choices and Management Review, ordered by Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel earlier this year.

“The AFSSS is much less capable than the space fence radar planned for Kwajalein Island in the Republic of the Marshall Islands,” stated General Shelton in a recent U.S. Air Force press release. “In fact, it’s apples and oranges in trying to compare the two systems.”

One thing’s for certain. There will be a definite capability gap when it comes to tracking space debris starting on October 1st until the next generation Space Fence comes online, which may be years in the future.

In the near term, Air Force Space Command officials have stated that a “solid space situational awareness” will be maintained by utilizing the space surveillance radar at Eglin Air Force Base in the Florida panhandle and the Perimeter Acquisition Radar Characterization System at Cavalier Air Force Station in North Dakota.

We’ve written about the mounting hazards posed by space debris before. Just earlier this year, two satellites were partially damaged due to space debris. Space junk poses a grave risk to the residents of the International Space Station, which must perform periodic Debris Avoidance Maneuvers (DAMs) to avoid collisions. Astronauts have spotted damage on solar arrays and handrails on the ISS due to micro-meteoroids and space junk. And on more than one occasion, the ISS crew has sat out a debris conjunction that was too close to call in their Soyuz spacecraft, ready to evacuate if necessary.

In 2009, a collision between Iridium 33 and the defunct Cosmos 2251 satellite spread debris across low Earth orbit. In 2007, a Chinese anti-satellite missile test also showered low Earth orbit with more of the same. Ironically, Space Fence was crucial in characterizing both events.

Satellites, such as NanoSail-D2, have demonstrated the capability to use solar sails to hasten reentry at the end of a satellites’ useful life, but we’re a long ways from seeing this capability standard on every satellite.

Amateurs will be affected by the closure of Space Fence as well. Space Weather Radio relies on ham radio operators, who listen for the “pings” generated by the Space Fence radar off of meteors, satellites and spacecraft.

“When combined with the new Joint Space Operations Center’s high-performance computing environment, the new fence will truly represent a quantum leap forward in space situational awareness for the nation,” General Shelton said.

But for now, it’s a brave and uncertain world, as Congress searches for the funds to bring this new resource online. Perhaps the old system will be rescued at the 11th hour, or perhaps the hazards of space junk will expedite the implementation of the new system. Should we pass the hat around to “Save Space Fence?”

Space Debris: A Tale of Two Satellites

Artist's concept of a GOES spacecraft in orbit. (Credit: NOAA.gov).

It’s sometimes tough being a satellite in Earth orbit these days.

An interesting commentary came our way recently via NASA’s Orbital Debris Program Office’s Orbital Debris Quarterly News. The article, entitled High-Speed Particle Impacts Suspected in Two Spacecraft Anomalies, highlights a growing trend in the local space environment.

The tale begins with GOES 13 located in geostationary orbit over longitude 75° West. Launched on May 24th, 2006 atop a Delta IV rocket, GOES 13 is an integral part of the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA’s) Geostationary Operational Environmental Satellite network.

The problems began when GOES-13 began to suffer an “attitude disturbance of unknown origin” on May 22nd of this year, causing it to drift about two degrees per hour off of its required nadir (the opposite of zenith) pointing.

The anomaly was similar to a problem encountered by the NOAA 17 spacecraft on November 20th, 2005. At the time, the anomaly was suspected to be due to a micrometeoroid impact. The Leonid meteors, which peak right around the middle of November, were a chief suspect. However, NOAA 17 suffered a second failure 18 days later, which was later traced down to a hydrazine leak from its errant thrusters.

GOES-13 has weathered hard times before.  Back in December of 2006, GOES-13’s Solar X-Ray Imager suffered damage after being struck by a solar flare shortly after initial deployment.   GOES-13 also began returning degraded imagery in September 2012, forcing it into backup status for Hurricane Sandy.

GOES-13 was restored to functionality last month. Current thinking is that the satellite was struck by a micrometeorite. No major meteor showers were active at the time.

Loss of a GOES satellite would place a definite strain on our weather monitoring and Earth observing capability. Begun with the launch of GOES-1 in 1975, currently six GOES satellites are in operation, including one used to relay data for PeaceSat (GOES-7) and one used as a communications relay for the South Pole research station (GOES-3).

The GOES program cost NOAA billions in cost overruns to execute. The next GOES launch is GOES-R scheduled in 2015.

But the universe seems to love coincidences.

NEE-01 Pegaso before deployment. (Credit:
NEE-01 Pegaso before deployment. (Credit: Wikimedia Commons image in the Public Domain).

Less than 26 hours after the GOES 13 anomaly, Ecuador’s first satellite, NEE-01 Pegaso began to have difficulties keeping a stable attitude. The event happened shortly after passage near an old Soviet rocket booster (NORAD designation 1986-058B) which launched Kosmos 1768 on August 2nd, 1986. The U.S. Joint Space Operations Center had warned the fledgling Ecuadorian Space Agency that conjunction was imminent, but of course, there’s not much that could’ve been done to save the tiny CubeSat.

Although the main mass passed Pegaso at a safe distance, current thinking is that the discarded booster may have left a cloud of debris in its wake. Researchers have tracked small “debris clouds” around objects it orbit before- the collision of Iridium 33 and the defunct Kosmos 2251 on February 10th, 2009 left a ring of debris in its wake, and the Chinese anti-satellite test carried out on January 11th, 2007 showered low-Earth orbit with debris for years to come.

The loss represents a blow to Ecuador and their first bid to become a space-faring nation. Launched less than a month prior atop a Long March 2D rocket, Pegaso was a small 10 centimetre nanosatellite equipped with solar panels and dual infrared and visible Earth imaging systems.

A translation from the Ecuadorian Space Agencies site states that;

 “The NEE-01 survived the crash and remains in orbit; however it has entered uncontrolled rotation due to the event.

 Due to this rotation, (the satellite) cannot point its antenna correctly and stably to the Earth station and although still transmitting and running, the signal cannot be decoded. The Ecuadorian Civilian Space Agency is working tirelessly to stabilize the NEE-01 and recover the use of their signal.

The PEGASUS aired for 7 days your signal to the world via EarthCam, millions could see the Earth seen from space in real time, many for the first time, the files in those 7 days have been published after transmission.”

Ecuador plans to launch another CubeSat, NEE 02 Krysaor later in 2013. A carrier has not yet been named.

While both events suffered by the GOES-13 and NEE-01 Pegaso satellites were unrelated, they underscore problems with space junk and space environmental hazards that are occurring with a higher frequency.

Gabbard diagram displaying a sample disintegration of a Long March 4 booster in 2000. (Credit: the NASA Orbital Debris Office).
Gabbard diagram displaying a sample disintegration of a Long March 4 booster in 2000. (Credit: the NASA Orbital Debris Office).

Such is the modern hazardous environment of low Earth orbit that new satellites must face. With a growing amount of debris, impact threats are becoming more common. The International Space Station must perform frequent debris avoidance maneuvers to avoid hazards, and more than once, the crew has waited out a pass in their Soyuz escape modules should immediate evacuation become necessary.  Punctures from micro-meteoroids or space junk have even been seen recently on the ISS solar panel arrays.

Plans are on the drawing board to deal with space junk, involving everything from “space nets” to lasers and even more exotic ideas. Probably the most immediate solution that can be implemented is to assure new payloads have a way to “self-terminate” via de-orbit at the end of their life span.  Solar sail technologies, such as NanoSailD2 launched in 2010 have already demonstrated this capability.

Expect reentries also pick up as we approach the peak of solar cycle #24 at the end of 2013 and the beginning of 2014. Increased solar activity energizes the upper atmosphere and creates increased drag on low Earth satellites.

It’s a brave new world “up there,” and hazards, both natural and man-made, are something that space faring nations will have to come to terms with.

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