With over 500,000 pieces of space debris currently orbiting Earth just how much danger do they pose to the International Space Station and other operational satellites? NASA is taking this very seriously. During this past weekend of March 24 and 25, the six astronauts currently aboard the ISS had to move into the Soyuz crew vehicles in case they had to make an emergency trip back to Earth. This was due to a piece of a Russian satellite that had been projected to fly within 9 miles of the ISS. (source: NASA). Fortunately the debris remained clear of the ISS, and the crew of two Americans, three Russians, and a Dutch astronaut were soon able to resume their normal duties.
According to Kelly O. Humphries, NASA Public Affairs Specialist for the International Space Station, the consequences of even a small piece of debris traveling at over 17,000 miles per hour and colliding with the ISS could be “catastrophic.” According to Humphries the space station has only had to maneuver 14 times over a 12 year period in order to avoid being hit by space junk. Of those 14 times the crew has only had to move into the crew vehicles three times. Humphries clarified that while these vehicles are commonly referred to as “escape vehicles” they are actually the same Soyuz capsules that are used regularly to transport astronauts to and from the ISS. Nevertheless collisions have occurred with other orbiting bodies including one reported by NASA in 2009 involving the Russian Cosmos 2251 satellite and the American Iridium 33 communications satellite. This collision created nearly 18,000 pieces of additional space debris. (source: NASA Orbital Debris Quarterly News, Vol. 13, Issue 2, April 2009).
Video courtesy of Lockheed-Martin
What is being done to address this growing and serious concern? Two projects currently underway that are worth noting includes the development of a so called “Space Fence” by Lockheed Martin, and the announcement this past February by the Swiss Space Center at Ecole Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne of a family of space satellites known as “CleanSpaceOne.” A sort of cosmic vacuum cleaner.
Lockheed’s Space Fence is being deployed in conjunction with the U.S. Air Force. This prototype system will use ground based radars to detect, track and catalog orbiting objects. According to Lockheed’s website,”Utilizing powerful, new ground-based radars, Space Fence will enhance the way the U.S. detects, tracks, measures and catalogs orbiting objects and space debris with improved accuracy, better timeliness and increased surveillance coverage.” On February 29, the Air Force granted its final approval of Lockheed Martin’s preliminary design for the system.
The CleanSpace One system is designed to actually remove the debris from space whereby a “garbage truck” satellite would be launched and will then grab the debris and hold it in its “claws” at which time it will start a “de-orbit” maneuver in which both the space junk and the CleanSpace One will plunge back and burn up in the Earth’s atmosphere. The Swiss Space Center reports that the initial launch will be aimed at a Swiss satellite that was put in orbit in 2009, Swisscube picosatellite, or TIsat launched in 2010. EPFL is planning on a maiden launch within the next two to three years.
While waiting for these and other technologies to come on line, space agencies from around the world must watch and wait and hope that any future space collisions will be minor “fender benders” and not a multi-satellite pile up.
Video courtesy of EPFL News
Given that the $100 billion International Space Station has had to dodge space debris several times in the past decade – the need for these systems is being viewed as increasingly critical. Crews on board the orbiting laboratory have had to scramble to the Soyuz spacecraft docked to the space station just in case a collision occurs.
For more information about the Space Fence: Lockheed Martin
For more information about CleanSpaceOne: CleanSpaceOne