Daily Archives: October 24, 2012

Will the next space disaster be a debris collision? And Kessler Blankets.

Sitting on top of enough explosive stuff to send a heavy weight into orbit at a high speed is dangerous, and that has cost lives in the space program. Re-entering the earth’s atmosphere, effectively imitating a meteor as it burns up owing to the translation of the aforereferenced kinetic energy into heat is also dangerous and has taken lives. But increasingly, just sitting there in a sealed box floating above the air far away from everything is becoming as dangerous as it sounds owing to an increased amount of space litter, and earlier this month another event has contributed what experts say is a “not insignificant amount” of litter to the problem.

The Russians recently launched a large rocket intended to put into orbit a couple of communication satellites, but the rocket stopped working on the way up, floated around for several days, and then exploded, creating an arc of new debris that shares orbital space with lots of satellites and the International Space Station. Apparently, similar events in recent years have led to a situation in which the ISS regularly adjusts its orbit to avoid space junk.

It is important to note that this recent explosion did not produce an imminent threat, but over time the situation becomes worse as more debris is added to the mix.

As of Tuesday evening, there were no orbital debris threats to the space station requiring any action, according to Josh Byerly, a NASA spokesperson.

The 450-ton complex can change its orbit, when necessary, to avoid individual pieces of space debris. The maneuvers have become more common since 2008 after a Chinese anti-satellite test and the high-speed crash of two satellites collectively sent approximately 5,000 chunks of space junk into the paths of spacecraft in low Earth orbit.

The Oct. 16 breakup marked the third explosion since 2007 of a Breeze M stage left with partially-full propellant tanks after a launch failure.

Each of the previous Breeze M breakups in 2007 and 2010 produced about 100 pieces of debris, according to NASA’s orbital debris program office.

Tracking equipment is said to be pretty good at finding debris that is “large” (tennis size or more) but most of the debris is small (bug-size). The small stuff acts like an erosive material when hitting things like the ISS, but larger objects would be more of a problem. “Erosion” can be mitigated against with “bumpers” that absorb the effects, but solar panels, antennas, etc. have to be exposed and are thus subject to damage by even small particles.

If a largish object hits something like a satellite or the ISS, Continue reading Will the next space disaster be a debris collision? And Kessler Blankets.