Archive for the ‘Orbital Debris’ Category

Weekly Links

Down to Earth

NASA announced a new class of 6 flight directors for human spaceflight at Johnson Space Center.

The Indian Space Research Organization (ISRO) performed a pad abort test of their launch escape tower for future crewed spaceflights.

Launch towers at Launch Complex 17 at Cape Canaveral were demolished last week. These launch towers were built for the now retired Delta II rocket. Instead, Moon Express will use the site.

Launch industry newcomer Rocket Lab plans to open a second launch site somewhere in the USA.

James Morhard has been nominated to the open position of NASA deputy administrator.

Astronaut Dan Burbank has retired from NASA.

In Orbit

NASA’s Kepler Space Telescope has entered a hibernation mode as it nears the end of its long mission.

There were three orbital rocket launches since my last post on July 1st:

Operations have been busy on the International Space Station. The Dragon resupply ship that launched at the end of June arrived at ISS on July 2nd. Then the above mentioned Progress resupply arrived.

On Sunday morning, the latest Cygnus cargo spacecraft departed the ISS packed full of trash. Before it left, it performed a demonstration maneuver to reboost the ISS.

Upcoming notable launches include a SpaceX launch from Florida on July 20th and a SpaceX launch from California on July 22nd. Still no firm launch date on the rescheduled Rocket Lab launch.

Around the Solar System

Still no update from NASA’s Opportunity rover, which has been socked in by a dust storm on Mars.

Weekly Links

Down To Earth

Last week the US Senate passed a bill named the “U.S. Commercial Space Launch Competitiveness Act”.  One of the most talked about provisions in the bill allows private citizens or companies to lay claim to asteroid resources.

Virgin Galactic announced that they have hired their first female test pilot: Kelly Latimer, who has flown for the USAF and NASA.

An object known as WT1190F re-entered the Earth’s atmosphere and broke up over the Indian Ocean on November 13th. The object was thought to be a rocket stage from an Apollo mission. Astronomers onboard an airplane caught some pictures of the event.

This is pretty cool:

In Orbit

In the past week, only one rocket blasted into orbit: an ESA Ariane 5 rocket with communications satellites for India and Saudi Arabia. The next launch in support of the ISS is still a few weeks away: an Atlas V carrying a Cygnus freighter for Orbital ATK.

Around the Solar System

I love this animated mission update on the Rosetta/Philae mission from ESA.

New analysis indicates that Mars’ small moon Phobos may only have millions of years to live. Due to its low orbit, it is getting torn apart by tidal forces, which cause the strange “grooves” on its surface.

New images of large mountains on Pluto may be evidence for “ice volcanoes” (or “cryovolcanoes”).

Check out this animation which shows the different spin rates of Pluto’s 5 moons.

Astronomers have discovered a new distant solar system object which may be the most distant rocky body known. V774104 is about half the size of Pluto and orbits several times further away.

Out There

Newly discovered planet , GJ 1132b, is the closest planet of about Earth’s size yet discovered, at only 39 light years distant. Unfortunately, the planet is tidally locked and very close to its star, making it not a fun place.

Weekly Links

Down to Earth

Jack King, who provided launch commentary for NASA missions in the 1960s and 1970s, has died at 84.

The United States Senate is busy working on a markup of a budget in the Commerce-Justice-Science (CJS) subcommittee, which includes money for NASA. The current budget, if passed, would include about $18.5 billion for NASA. However, there is some debate about how that money is being spent, including whether enough money is being allocated to the “commercial crew” program for launching astronauts to ISS on spacecraft built by SpaceX and Boeing.

NASA has awarded $30 million to SpaceX for their launch abort test milestone last month.

NASA’s Low Density Supersonic Decelerator (LDSD) had a second drop test over Hawaii this week. The technology will help with Martian EDL for large mass spacecraft. Unfortunately, the parachute failed at high altitudes. More test flights are planned.

In Orbit

It was a very busy week up on the ISS. The most important update is that Expedition 43 ended on Wednesday when Terry Virts handed over command to Gennady Padalka for Expedition 44. Then on Thursday morning the crew of TMA-15M (consisting of Terry Virts, Samantha Cristoforetti, and Anton Shkaplerov) undocked from the ISS and landed safely in Kazakhstan a few hours later.

Earlier in the week, there was some unrelated excitement: first, on Monday, June 8th, the mission control teams in Moscow and Houston had to work together to execute a Pre-determined Debris Avoidance Maneuver (PDAM) to change the ISS orbit to dodge some space junk.

Then, on Tuesday, an unexpected thruster firing from a docked Soyuz vehicle caused ISS to take contingency actions. The Soyuz thruster firing overwhelmed the NASA-owned Control Moment Gyroscopes (CMGs), requiring use of Russian Segment attitude control thrusters to “right the ship” so to speak. Long story short, this is exactly the kind of contingency we plan for and practice hundreds of times in the ADCO group. From what I have heard, the situation was handled very well!

With Expedition 44 underway, there are only 3 astronauts aboard ISS. According to official launch dates from Roscosmos, we won’t see 6 people aboard again until TMA-17M launches in late July.

The LightSail mission has been declared a success, now that there are images of the mylar solar sails deployed! Can’t wait for the next test flight next year.

Around the Solar System

NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter has found evidence of impact glass, which may preserve evidence of past life.

Here is some new imagery of Ceres from the Dawn spacecraft, featuring a new high resolution look at the “bright spots”. Ceres is slowly moving to lower and lower mapping orbits.

There is also new imagery of Pluto from New Horizons:

Because its Cool

Check out the first official trailer for the highly anticipated (at least by geeks) movie, The Martian:

Weekly Links

It’s been a whole month since I last posted, so there is some catching up to do. I’m going to try to just hit the highlights.

Down to Earth

A few quick news items from the “NewSpace” sector:

Most exciting and most recently, today Virgin Galactic flew the second powered flight of the SpaceShipTwo space plane. This test involved “feathering” the spaceship’s wings after the engine is shut down to help with a controlled “re-entry”. With this only being the second test flight of the year – the first was back in April – it seems unlikely Virgin will start flights to space by the end of the year. Still, it is awesome to see progress. Here’s a video of the flight.

ATK has partnered with Orbital Sciences to build the rocket for Stratolaunch. Orbital is designing the rocket and ATK will provide the first and second stages. For those that need a refresher, Stratolaunch is the Paul Allen project to have a 747-sized plane be the launch platform for a massive rocket that can deliver as much as 13,500 pounds to Earth orbit.

Last month Sierra Nevada’s “Dream Chaser” space plane went through some taxi tests out in California. Basically, it was just towed down the runway to test the landing gear. But if you think that’s exciting, there’s a video! Interestingly, the nose landing gear is a skid, not a wheel.

SpaceX had another test flight of their “Grasshopper” vertical take off and landing rocket. This time it was a “divert” test where it flew sideways and came back. Here’s the video.

In the NASA world there are a few updates also:

First of all, deputy NASA administrator Lori Garver has announced she will be leaving NASA for a job in the private sector (specifically as president of the American Airline Pilots Association).

Astronaut Mike Foale is also leaving NASA after a 26 year career.

A recent paper was published identifying 12 EROs (easily-retrievable objects) to add to a list of possible destinations for NASA’s asteroid retrieval mission. Unfortunately, Lori Garver (see above) was a chief proponent of this new controversial mission. Check out this article in the Washington Post outlining some of the technical and political issues that may hinder this mission.

In Orbit

Tomorrow night at 11:27 PM Eastern time, NASA’s LADEE (Lunar Atmosphere and Dust Environment Explorer) will launch from the Wallops Island facility in Virginia. The launch should be visible to much of the East coast, so stay up to watch if you can! The spacecraft will not have any cameras. Instead, it has spectrometers and dust scoops for studying the tenuous lunar atmosphere. Once LADEE has launched it will clear the Wallops Island launch range for the Orbital Sciences launch of their first Cygnus flight to ISS on September 17th.

A link I should have posted weeks ago is a first hand account from ESA astronaut Luca Parmitano of the EVA which was aborted in July when his helmet started filling up with water. This was probably the scariest thing to happen in spaceflight since the loss of Columbia a decade ago. Great job by flight controllers and especially Luca in staying calm under pressure.

NASA is officially no longer attempting to fully recover the Kepler Space Telescope. Fortunately, lots of people are thinking of ways Kepler can still do exciting science without the stability of three gyroscopes. One of the most publicized white papers from this past week was the idea to look for planets in the very close habitable zones of white dwarf stars.

Similarly, the WISE spacecraft (wide-field infrared survey explorer) is getting a new mission. WISE is being reactivated on a 3-year mission to look for NEOs (Near-Earth Object). As Phil Plait points out, this mission may be directly related to NASA’s asteroid retrieval mission, and the effort to find a candidate rock to go grab.

To round out the space telescope news, the Spitzer Space Telescope celebrated its 10th year in space this summer. Spitzer ran out of liquid helium coolant in 2009 but is still going strong with its “warm mission”.

In what is a startling development, the United States Air Force’s “Space Fence” will be shut down after the end of this fiscal year. The Space Fence is a key part of our orbital surveillance program. Without the space fence program there will be a gap in capability until if and when the new system comes on line in a few years. It’s very possible that without this system the risk of debris striking any given spacecraft without warning – including the ISS – goes up.

Around the Solar System

Mars rover Curiosity got an awesome set of images of the moon Phobos passing in front of Deimos. Not just a rover!

Because it’s cool

Speaking of Virgin Galactic, the term “space tourism” has been officially added to the OED.

The great XKCD comic recently did a great job describing the basics of orbital mechanics.

Somebody recreated the famous shot of a bike flying in front of the moon from the movie E.T.

In a post in July I wrote about how Hubble had determined the color of a far-flung exoplanet. What I failed to mention that they had also discovered that on this planet it probably “rains glass sideways”, which is a bit of a let down if you are wanting to visit this nifty blue world someday. The web comic Sci-Ence is apparently annoyed at how often the planets we discover are unlivable, and has created a handy guide.

Weekly Links

Down to Earth

I wrote last week about a few updates to Space Shuttle artifact exhibits coming online around the country. And there is yet more news to tell this week.

The exhibit of the Space Shuttle (not) Orbiter Enterprise at the Intrepid Sea, Air, and Space Museum is coming together after recovering from hurricane Sandy. The new upgraded “pavilion” is being built over Enterprise now and will open on July 10.

The last pieces of wrapping paper were taken off of Space Shuttle Atlantis at KSC.

The first Canadarm, or Space Shuttle robotic arm, was put on display at the Canada Aviation and Space Museum last week. ISS Commander Chris Hadfield was linked to the museum live from space for the unveiling.

Speaking of the Canadian Space Agency, Canada also revealed this past week that the new Canadian $5 bill will feature space images, including a picture of the Space Station Robitc arm and an astronaut on a spacewalk.

NASA resigned the contract with the Russian space agency to provide transport for American astronauts to ISS on Soyuz launch vehicles. The renewal paid for seats through 2017 – which is only 3 years before the official end of ISS in 2020 (but everyone expects the program to extend into the late 2020s).

Boeing successfully completed a flight test of the X-51A scramjet known as “Waverider”. This was the longest airbreathing scramjet flight to date (that’s unclassified…).

Not Quite in Orbit

As I wrote about in a separate post, Virgin Galactic had their first powered flight of SpaceShipTwo last week on April 29. The video is too good not to repost.

In the wake of all the excitement surrounding that flight, Virgin Galactic has confirmed that ticket prices are about to go up 25% from $200,000 to $250,000 to account for inflation.

In Orbit

The European Space Agency’s Herschel Space Observatory ran out of helium coolant last week and officially ended its mission.

A 3-D printer will fly to the ISS next year. This is a good idea in how to test ways to make spacecraft more self-sufficient, which will be necessary if humanity ever takes true deep space missions.

Chris Hadfield explains in a little over a minute my job as an Attitude Determination and Control Officer for ISS. Thanks, Chris!

The Fermi Gamma Ray Space Telescope did a debris avoidance maneuver in early April to avoid a nasty collision with an old Soviet Satellite. This was apparently the first time in Fermi’s mission (launched in 2008) that they had to use the thruster system for such a maneuver. This is a common problem for low Earth orbit spacecraft and the ISS has close calls with debris – and performs maneuvers – more than we would like to.

Around the Solar System

I enjoyed this story of unexpected scientific discovery. The team searching the outer solar system for an object for New Horizons to visit after it reaches Pluto happened to discover a new Trojan asteroid of Neptune (he explains what a Trojan asteroid is).

The Mars probes and rovers have woken up from solar conjunction. Opportunity and Curiosity should be off and roving again. Opportunity actually had a minor glitch when NASA initially resumed contact but she recovered no problem.

The asteroid that NASA’s Osiris-Rex sample return mission will visit in a few years has officially be named Bennu.

Weekly Links

Down to Earth

Well, these guys are decidedly not down to Earth, but since they haven’t gone anywhere yet, I put them here  – Golden Spike is the latest space industry startup with big dreams. They think they can make a profit flying manned missions to the moon in the 2020s. I wish them luck!

You can now purchase SpaceX mission patches from their online company store.

Look out for Geminid meteors later this week!

In Orbit

The Russians have finally finished building Nauka, or the MLM, a large module that has been slated to fly to the ISS for some time. According to the Russian press they plan to launch in early 2014. This module will add nearly 1/3 to the size of the Russian pat of ISS but has been delayed for years.

Speaking of the Russian space program, their Proton rocket had its third upper stage failure in under 18 months when the launch on December 8 was not able to place its communications satellite payload in the expected orbit. This is indeed the same class of rocket that will be needed to launch the MLM to ISS in a year or two. the Breeze-M upper stage that is causing all of these problems is not common to the Soyuz family of rockets used to launch small payloads and astronauts to ISS.

The Air Force is scheduled to launch the third flight of their X-37B tomorrow. The flight had been delayed due to a failure of a different United Launch Alliance rocket that uses the same upper stage RL-10 engine. The problem was determined to be a fuel leak that should not affect the upcoming launch.

The jumping spider Nefertiti that spent time on the ISS died in the Smithsonian last week. The spider went on display and was expected to make it a few months but only survived a few days.

Chris Hadfield is getting set to launch on a Soyuz next week with the rest of his Expedition 35 crew. The Universe Today has a nice feature on Hadfield, who will be the first Canadian commander of ISS.

Around the Solar System

The much anticipated press briefing about recent Curiosity rover results happened last week at the AGU (American Geophysical Union) meeting in San Francisco. The summary is that no, the rover did not make a big discovery, much to the disappointment of the online hype machine. Emily Lakdawalla has a great summary of what exactly happened and why the results -basically a first test of the rovers instruments that showed they work great – are exciting nonetheless.

NASA last week announced a 2020 mission to send another MSL-class rover to Mars. The rover is being jokingly called MSL 2.0 or the MSL sequel because a key part of the announcement is that the new rover will use mission architecture and even spare parts from the MSL mission. Interestingly, the science instruments and objectives for the mission have not been defined yet. Really the announcement was just to tell the public that a new rover mission is being planned, not what it will be exactly.

There have been some very mixed reactions in the planetary science community about this new 2020 rover. Emily Lakdawalla of the Planetary Society explains how the mission does not appear to follow the Decadal Survey. Casey Dreier explains the budget details behind the mission. Lastly, I enjoyed this assessment by Andrew Symes.

This gravity map of the moon is just cool.

There will be a close flyby of Earth by two asteroids tomorrow, the 11th. One is a small rock just discovered just yesterday. The other is 4179 Toutatis, a large NEA we have known about since the early 90s. The Toutatis encounter is special because China’s Chang’E 2 orbiter will be attempting a flyby on December 13. This will be the first deep-space rendezvous by the Chinese.

Because it’s Cool

This volcanic ice cave in the Kamchatka peninsula is just amazing.

Friday Links

Things have been busy in my life as well as the world of spaceflight, so there’s a lot to catch up on! Highlights of the last two weeks are the death of Neil Armstrong, Curiosity rover on the move, problems during an EVA on ISS, more Kepler discoveries, and launch of NASA’s Radiation Belt Storm Probes.

Armstrong

Neil Armstrong died last Saturday. Of course, everyone has been talking about it. I’m not really sure there is anything I can add. I saw (but did not meet) Neil Armstrong at the Apollo 11 40th anniversary celebration here in Houston in July 2009. I really hoped the crew would be around for the 50th, but that is not to be.

The AIAA (American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics) is starting a Neil Armstrong Scholarship Fund to honor his legacy.

When I say everyone has been talking about Neil Armstrong, I mean it. Even Clear Channel billboards and Oreo cookies (make sure to click the tweet to look at the picture).

[blackbirdpie url=”https://twitter.com/Oreo/status/240236505560391680″]

Former NASA administrator Dan Goldin wrote an article for the Washington Post about Apollo 11’s impact on America.

CollectSpace has an excellent image gallery of Armstrong.

Down to Earth

The Space Shuttle Solid Rocket Booster recovery ship has been turned over to another government agency.

In similar news, one of the Space Shuttle trainers that was used at JSC for decades was flown to the USAF museum in Ohio.

[blackbirdpie url=”https://twitter.com/Astro_Box/status/238482009498992640″]

In Orbit

The reboost problem I wrote about two weeks ago was resolved and the ISS did a double reboost with the ATV engines last week. The reboosts went fine and raised the space station to a new record altitude.

Also at the ISS, two Russian cosmonauts did a spacewalk. They did some un-interesting maintenance but also deployed a scary looking silver ball satellite that will be used in a space junk tracking experiment.

Speaking of EVAs, there was an EVA from the US segment airlock yesterday (Thursday, August 30). One of the main objectives was to remove and replace a faulty Main Bus Switching Unit (MBSU). My colleague Stephanie has a nice summary at here blog. Unfortunately, the astronauts (Sunita Williams and Aki Hoshide) encountered some troublesome bolts and the new MBSU did not get completely installed. For details, here is the post-spacewalk press briefing (44 minutes).

The ISS is not in a great configuration without the MBSU. Many core systems are jumpered to different power sources and some other hardware remains powered down. The team will be working towards figuring out how we can fix the problem on a future spacewalk. I expect a spacewalk to be planned relatively soon. I will be on some evening shifts over the next week and might get to help with that plan in my small way!

For an astronaut’s view of what has been going on at ISS you should definitely be reading the blogs at Fragile Oasis. I’ll just leave you some links to some recent posts. Williams likes to write a lot. So enjoy!

NASA successfully launched the Radiation Belt Storm Probes.

Around the Solar System

From Mars, our rovers have been busy. Here’s an interesting self portrait from Curiosity.

Here’s a video update about Curiosity from last week. They cover the first use of the ChemCam laser, the first wheel motion commands (followed by the first drive), the deployment of the arm, and the naming of the landing site after the late Ray Bradbury.

On the other side of Mars, Opportunity is working hard trying to find “phylosillicates” (or clays) before Curiosity can make that discovery itself. Opportunity recently passed 35 kilometers on her odometer. Of course, Opportunity will never take any pictures as stunning as this.

Next week the Dawn spacecraft will leave asteroid Vesta and start on her way to Ceres!

Out There

Kepler has discovered a new planetary system around binary star Kepler-47 with 2 planets, one in the habitable zone. This is the type of discovery I have been waiting for ever since Kepler launched in 2009. We are now over 3 years into the mission so it is possible to have seen planets with a ~300 day orbit transit their star three times… the required number to confirm a discovery. Awesome.

Because it’s cool

I liked this picture of an F-22.

Hurricane Isaac from space.

 

Friday Links

Down To Earth

Virgin Galactic hits 500 reservations for spaceflights and guess who the 500th is? Yup, Ashton Kutcher!

Angry Birds Space was released this week. I’ve already been playing it and it’s definitely fun, but I don’t know how “educational” it really is regarding physics and orbital dynamics. It has the NASA logo on the title screen though, so I’m not complaining (no link, just go to your mobile app store).

Former Nazi engineer, spaceflight visionary, and architect of the rockets that made the Apollo program a reality, would have been 100 years old on March 23rd.

Bigelow Aerospace may be hiring again (they laid off a huge percentage of their workforce last year).

Apparently European Space Agency management support a Chinese Shenzou docking to ISS.

In Orbit

NASA says that the Robotic Refueling Mission activity on ISS earlier this month was a “great success“.

Don Pettit blogs about seeing Iridium flares from the space station (with photo). If you’ve never heard of Iridium flares or seen one, follow Don’s advice and go to heavens-above.com and make sure to see the next bright one predicted for your house!

Late last night (early Saturday morning on the ISS) all 6 ISS crew members took shelter in their Soyuz modules when a piece of Kosmos 2251 debris passed very near ISS.This marks the third time the ISS has been notified of a close debris pass too late to plan an orbital correction maneuver. Kosmos 2251 is one of the satellites that was involved with an unexpected collision in early 2009 creating thousands of pieces of new debris in low Earth orbit. No anomalous signatures were seen at the “Time of Closest Approach” (TCA) so the crew was given an all-clear call to resume their weekend.

I’m sure you’ve heard the cliched quote “they should have sent a poet!” Well it seems we did. Don Pettit wrote a poem he calls Halfway to Pluto which may be in my top poems ever now. Go read it! Pettit doesn’t mention the New Horizons probe in the poem, but it happens to be past halfway to Pluto now (about 10 AU left to get to Pluto).

Early Friday morning ESA launched their third ATV cargo supply mission to ISS. The ATV launched on an Ariane 5 rocket from French Guiana and is on its way to a March 28 docking to ISS.

Around the Solar System

What’s going on at Mars? Astronomers have noticed a strange “protrusion” from Mars’ disc. Basically, it appears that something is sticking up through Mars’ atmosphere near the terminator as seen from Earth. It could be a dust storm or any number of other things. You can clearly see the protrusion in the GIF i have included below (via Sky & Telescope and Wayne Jaeschke who first discovered the feature).

Mars has a rotational period close to Earth’s (it’s actually about 25 hours), so the feature has rotated in and out of view a few times since it was first discovered a few days ago. Speculation abounds, but the most likely causes of the feature are probably atmospheric related – storms or other disturbances. But who knows, maybe Mars isn’t really geologically dead? Could it be a volcanic eruption? Perhaps even an ejecta plume from a large impact? These two more fantastic scenarios are unlikely but probably shouldn’t be ruled out. There’s a lot we still don’t know about our solar system.

The Mars Exploration Rover Opportunity is still parked at her winter haven spot on the top of Cape York on the edge of Endeavour Crater. She won’t be roving anywhere for a few more weeks yet. However, recently the rover team was commanding some science measurements of a rock under Opportunity’s feet. There was some kind of hiccup with the instrument and at the same time the rover’s left front wheel shifted position. The rover team is still looking into the event but Opportunity seems healthy. There is an animation of the motion at the Road To Endeavour blog.

Here’s an animation of that scary asteroid 2012 DA14 that has the potential to hit the Earth on future orbits (but not until after 2013).

Because It’s Cool

As always I have to include some cool pics from Astronomy Picture of the Day this week. First is a view of the sun from Spain that reveals some of the active sunspot regions currently on the surface. Second is this creative shot of Jupiter and Venus.

Also on the “that’s a cool picture” front is this picture of a rocket launch from Fairbanks, Alaska back in February. Stunning!

A time lapse video of a tumbling satellite.

Orbital Debris Laser

This idea from Europe to use laser pulses to find and track orbital debris is interesting. when I first read the headline, I was hoping the idea was using a high powered laser to destroy debris, or help it’s orbit decay more quickly. I’m not sure the sizes of debris that DLR is advertising they can detect is all that impressive. I think the US military systems already track down to a few centimeters (although, anything only a few millimeters to a centimeter across can be destructive to ISS, so we need to get much better). Perhaps lasers would be more accurate than the current radar method we use? I’d like to see more on this – beyond just a press release.

Hopefully, the new IMAX movie “Space Junk 3D“, which is now showing around the country, will boost public interest in this issue and maybe drive up funding for research and development in this area. One can hope. I will go see the movie at the Houston Museum of Natural Science and I’ll write a review here. Stay tuned!

It’s a mess out there

So far this year the ISS has had to move out of the way of debris twice. First on January 13th due to debris from the Iridium/Cosmos collision in 2009, and then again on January 28th due to Fengyun-1C debris. If it seems like this is happening more often, that’s because it is. I haven’t done enough research to confirm that twice in one month is a first, but twice in the first 4 weeks of the year is definitely a first. This is the first time two DAMs (debris avoidance maneuvers) have happened in such a short time. The highest density of DAMs before this year was in 2010 with DAMs in April, July, and October. Two DAMs in the first month of the year is a bit foreboding.

In case you forgot, Fengyun-1C is the satellite that China deliberately blew to smithereens in 2007. That satellite was at a high low earth orbit (yes, high low) above the ISS. That debris has been slowly “falling” back to Earth over the past 4 years (it’s really not falling but just losing orbital energy due to drag). The plot below, from NASA’s orbital debris office, shows just how much debris was added to Earth orbit from the two destructive events (one deliberate and one accidental) in the past few years.

Plot of orbital debris over time

In case you’re confused, it’s the two huge jumps at 2007 and 2009. Find them yet? Yeah, thought so.

At this point, there’s nothing we can do to help reduce this problem for the rest of ISS orbital life. The problem of space debris needs to be dealt with before launch of satellites with sound “cradle-to-grave” mission design as well as strong international policy that is enforced. Right now, there are no such policies, only “voluntary guidelines” created by the UN Committee on the Peaceful Uses of Outer Space. NASA is stuck with the constant close calls as long as we operate the ISS at its current orbit. Fortunately, we have well written Flight Rules and well trained trajectory officers to keep us on the straight and narrow – or threading the needle, if you prefer.

Tech writers love to report on new crazy ideas for orbital debris removal. These ideas include your standard “go grab it and bring it back”, your “ground laser broom”, your “giant space net”, your “inflatable balloon”, your “giant aerogel sticky ball”, and other wacky ideas. Thinking outside the box is good, but none of these would be cheap to implement. Who is going to spend the money on debris cleanup? There is no profit margin there. It would have to be a government funded project, but NASA doesn’t have billions of dollars to spare on a giant space net right now.

This problem has to be solved in international politics as well as in satellite mission design now, in the first half of the 21st century, so that later missions do not become too cumbersome to operate due to constant adjustments of orbital trajectory. The situation is by no means catastrophic, as some of the bee hive style graphics of Earth orbit would imply. But the problem does make it expensive and difficult to operate a mission in low Earth orbit.

A debris hit to the space station is one of the more common scenarios we run in ISS flight controller simulations. This is partly because with a piece of speeding orbital debris the training team can make anything break that they want. Need a specific water pump to fail at the same time as a certain computer? Send some debris on a straight line through both of them! But we also sim those cases so often because they are real and they are serious. We may train those cases to death, but the last thing I want to hear when I am on shift in the control room is that we are in a “rapid depress” emergency. If that day every comes, it will be a bad one.