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.

Turning Stars Into Art

We all have cameras, and the sky’s an easy target, so why not have a little fun? Ever since I got my first camera at age 12 I wanted to shoot time exposures of the night sky. That and a tripod are all you need. Presented here for your enjoyment are a few oddball and yet oddly informative images of stars and planets.  Take the word “art” loosely! 

This is the pair to the Sirius image and shows Jupiter through the telescope. Notice how blandly white it appears. That's because Jupiter's disk is large enough to not  show twinkling (and color changes) caused by atmospheric turbulence as in the case of point-like Sirius.
Colorless mess. This is the companion to the Sirius image and shows Jupiter through the telescope. Notice how blandly white it appears. That’s because Jupiter’s disk is large enough to not show twinkling (and color changes) caused by atmospheric turbulence as in the case of point-like Sirius. Credit: Bob King
Orion's Belt and Sword trail in this time exposure made with a 200mm lens. The nearly perfectly parallel because the stars lie very near the celestial equator and were on the meridian at the time.
Pleasing parallels. Orion’s Belt and Sword trail in this time exposure made with a 200mm lens. The fuzzy pink streak is the Orion Nebula. They’re trails are nearly parallel because the stars all lie close to the celestial equator and were crossing the meridian at the time. Credit: Bob King
Star Trek Effect. OK, this was crazy to shoot. I centered Jupiter in the viewfinder, pressed the shutter button for a 20-second time exposure and slowly zoomed out from 70mm to 200mm on the telephoto lens. It took a few tries, because I was shooting blind, but even the rejects weren't too bad. Credit: Bob King
Star Trek Effect.  I centered Jupiter in the viewfinder, pressed the shutter button for a 20-second time exposure and slowly hand-zoomed the lens from 70mm to 200mm. It took a few tries because I was shooting blind, but even the rejects weren’t too bad. Credit: Bob King
Color by fog. The colors of stars are accentuated when photographed through fog or light cloud. Orion at right with the crescent moon at lower left. Credit: Bob King
Color by Fog. The colors of stars are accentuated when spread into a glowing disk by fog or light cloud. Orion  is at right with the crescent moon at lower left. Credit: Bob King
Snow flies.  During a time exposure taken on a snowy but partly cloudy night, snowflakes, illuminated by a yard light, streak about  beneath a Full Moon earlier this winter. Credit: Bob King
Snow flies. During a time exposure taken on a snowy but partly cloudy night, snowflakes, illuminated by a yard light, streak about beneath a Full Moon earlier this winter. Credit: Bob King
Stuttering Stars. For this image of the Big Dipper the camera was on a tracking mount. I left the shutter open for about a half hour, then covered the lens with a black cloth for a few minutes. After the cloth was removed, I started tracking and exposed the Dipper for a few minutes. During part of the exposure I used a diffusion filter in front of the lens to soften and enlarge the brightest stars. Credit: Bob King
Stuttering Stars. For this image of the Big Dipper the camera was on a tracking mount. I left the shutter open for about 25 minutes with the tracking turned off so the stars would trail.  Then the lens was covered with a black cloth for a few minutes to create a gap between this exposure and the next. After the cloth was removed, I started the tracking motor and kept the exposure running for a few minutes. A diffusion filter was used in front of the lens to soften and enlarge the brightest stars. Credit: Bob King

ISS Tracking

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The International Space Station, or ISS, is the largest object every built by humans in space. And because it’s so large, it’s also very bright; easily visible with the unaided eye. The ISS also follows an orbital track that takes over different parts of the Earth. That means if you know the right time, you can go out and watch the station pass right over. But you need to know the right time, and that requires some kind of ISS tracking tool. Let’s take a look at some ISS tracking tools you can use to tell you when you should head outside and look up.

The best place to track ISS is from NASA’s human space flight ISS tracking page. This site will tell you the current location of the International Space Station, and space shuttles currently in flight, and the Hubble Space Telescope. The problem is that this tells you where the space station is right now, and not when it’s going to be passing through your skies… at night.

A better tool for that is the ISS sightings page. You download an applet that lets you put in your place on Earth and it gives you some upcoming dates and times that the station will be passing overhead. There’s also a quick drop down box, where you can select your location from many places in the world.

Another great tool is Heavens Above. It allows you to track the current position of thousands of satellites, including ISS and the space shuttles, when they’re in orbit.

So use one of these tools for ISS tracking, and then head outside and see if you can see the station with your own eyes.

We have written many articles about the International Space Station. Here’s an article about how you can actually see ISS in the daytime; it’s just that bright. And here’s an image of ISS and the shuttle transiting the Sun.

We have recorded an episode of Astronomy Cast that talks about the Space Station’s orbit.