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Space Debris Has Hit and Damaged the International Space Station (sciencealert.com)
413 points by bryan0 61 days ago | hide | past | favorite | 196 comments

>The inevitable has occurred

This makes it sound like it was some sort of an unique event. ISS has huge surface area, and MMOD impacts are practically routine, damaging all sorts of equipment - radiators, batteries, pumps, solar panels, and even heatshields and windows (Cupola windows got hit by debris a couple times, so now they are kept closed when not in use).


>The ISS impact database is maintained at the NASA/JSC by the Hypervelocity Impact Technology (HVIT) group. The database contains over 1,400 records of impact damage from ground-based observations of space-exposed hardware returned from ISS

>MMOD damage areas of interest acquired from EVA and IVA sources mentioned here are collected in an image database managed by the Image Science and Analysis Group at the Johnson Space Center (JSC). There are currently 380 records tagged as “MMOD” in the database, although it should be noted that some of these records include multiple MMOD damages (i.e., there are more than 380 MMOD impacts represented in this database).

And that's only the detected ones. Even detecting the strikes in orbit is hard; automation of all sorts is being developed for this job. (strain sensors, microphones, ML-assisted visual analysis etc)

> Cupola windows got hit by debris a couple times, so now they are kept closed when not in use

You'd think that opening the windows in space was a bad idea anytime.

I find it funny that someone wrote bulletproof in the specifications of the windows. Is the bulletproof term used in the space industry?

The funny part is that what they actually need is much stronger than merely "bulletproof," if only it had been invented.

"spaceproof" would sound much cooler, to be honest.

I think the closest would be "hypervelocity-impact resistant".

Meteorite proof?

Bullet proof is a little open ended for a spec.

Meteor may be a tad vague. “What do you mean it’s not Chicxulub proof?”

"Earthlings thrash proof" would be more accurate.

Did you mean to say trash?

Yes..yes i did ;)

Thanks, I thought it was an unusual colloquialism for "couple of"

Window shields were open

Storm shutters?

But what if it gets too warm?

I know it's not a real question, but it is actually the bigger problem to cool the ISS then to heat it.

Also to distribute it ~evenly around the station.


Wow, it is just so cool we’ve created a little alcove up in space for us fragile humans to live in.

Yes it's impressive how many problems occur in a space-station.

Fun-fact: The training bicycle needs to be suspended otherwise the whole station would start to wiggle/vibrate which can damage the solar-panels...because of one little human on a bike ;)


Not just that, but the mere fan vibration is enough to make ISS unsuitable for some particularily sensitive 0g experiments. There was an entire co-orbital module for ISS in the plans (that never came to fruition, sadly) to provide the station with a separate volume with high-quality microgravity, that would be in the same orbit, docking with the station from time to time.

Little humans in good shape can sustain for several seconds bursts of 1000W+ on a bike. Not so little after all.

The cost-optimized mundane everyday machines that we expect to move are endowed with 150x that energy output -- and with the ability to sustain it rather than burst it. 1kW is large for a human but small for moving a big chunk of metal. Since the sort of resonant motion would be thoroughly damped if, say, you built a full scale ISS in your backyard, I tend to agree with them that it's notable.

> The cost-optimized mundane everyday machines that we expect to move are endowed with 150x that energy output -- and with the ability to sustain it rather than burst it.

A perfect example is a large water pump, a 250hp electric pump draws approximately 150kW (480v 3ph, around 300-310 amps).

I make Sustainable Sound (1),a bicycle powered sound+light+robot interactive experience… can confirm the impressive power a human can create.

(1) http://sustainablesound.org/ (Deep apologies for how behind my sites are - recovering and working on it)

Little Ant's and Bee's are even more impressive...well not on a bike but otherwise.

>This makes it sound like it was some sort of an unique event.

I don't think unique events are generally described as inevitable?

"The inevitable has occurred" says "we all knew this was coming one day, and now it finally has".

Whereas the reality here is "this happens all the time, including a minute ago".

They're very different messages.

I figured inevitable in this case referred to damage that was significant, the inevitability of the damage being due to the very commonness of the event that causes it.

But the damage appears to be not significant? And this isn't mentioned in the paragraph under discussion. They just say 'A piece of space debris too small to be tracked has hit and damaged part of the International Space Station'

There is a big BUG in marketing economics that we do not have a price for external Junk/Waste. This one organizations junk may be "free" to them, but cost another organization big amounts of work and hassle.

Space junk is such an example. After you launch your satellite and it does it work and then becomes obsolete, there is very low to no incentive to remove the waste in a good manner.

Nature usually works differently in that there is some kind of waste harvest process that recycles the waste into a renewable process.

> There is a big BUG in marketing economics that we do not have a price for external Junk/Waste.

This is called a negative externality, and it's been understood by economists for about a century. See https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Externality#Negative

One of the reasons negative externalities persist is that they're hard to put a price on. How would you calculate the economic cost of the marginal piece of space junk?

In practice governments will have to do their best to impose reasonable frictions, by taxing launches or otherwise regulating them. But I think it's more correct to call this a genuinely hard problem in economics, as opposed to a bug.

I think what most warrants critique is the fact that despite a century of alleged awareness, no extant economic policy even begins to address the problem in its full scope

We've been saying "in practice governments must impose reasonable frictions" since the 1970s at least, with the reentry of ecological concerns into public consciousness in the west, and still we've barely begun

We barrel down this road under the guidance of a great many economists for a hundred years or more despite our "understanding" this genuinely hard problem? Are we mad? Suicidal?

If economists made the laws, our systems would look drastically different. Most of them love the idea of massive pigeuvian taxes to offset negative externalities, because it's the exact opposite of a distortionary tax: it corrects an existing problem rather than creating a new one.

Unfortunately, our laws are made by politicians, who are beholden to the voters, who aren't tremendously well versed in theoretical tax policy, so we end up with silly things like corporate income taxes and rent control even though they're massively unpopular among almost all economists, regardless of political leaning.

I think the real question is: Why have economists been so damn ineffective? What can they do differently to spread their ideas?

I think your question is a good one but not so sure about chalking our woes up to ignorance in the voting booth

If economics is like most academic disciplines it likely has its share of pathological incentive structures, genuflection to special interests, overpromising, for instance

And not sure we should expect to find a comprehensive answer to a question like "why is our system the way it is" in a single unambiguous sentence or cause

> We barrel down this road under the guidance of a great many economists

Properly understood, economics has always been harnessed as a tool to maximize profit for the rich, a bit like shady "doctors" for elite athletes administering performance-enhancing drugs, optimizing their short-term gains at the expense of long-term consequences, completely unlike real doctors who look out for the general well-being of patients. There are few economists who care about long-term consequences that actually influence policymakers.

This. Most of the field is centered around maximizing or defending the interests of billionaires. It’s one of my favorite disciplines, but after reviewing the curriculum of a major econ program nearby I decided not to pursue it for basically this reason.

I think authorities are becoming stricter in requirements for end-of-life planning for anything you launch.

* For some other satellites, there are plans to move them to a graveyard orbit when they are no longer useful. Of course, this requires the satellite to take action, so it cannot be done if the satellite would become unresponsive.

* In some cases, orbits are selected that will degrade quite quickly even when the satellite is non-responsive. IIRC, Starlink satellites would deorbit in a matter of months.

* Active research is also being done w.r.t. deorbiting satellites at end of life (e.g. with a sail [0]).

To launch anything you have to get various approvals. Those approval processes are becoming stricter in their requirements for end-of-life planning. This should help lessen the effects of the bug you describe.

Of course, there are situations that are not accounted for in those plans. If some malfunction causes a satellite to e.g. explode in orbit, it will leave behind a lot of space debris, and any deorbiting plans requiring action on the part of the satellite are useless. So what I described above helps, but doesn't fix the issue completely.

[0] http://www.esa.int/Safety_Security/Space_Debris/Setting_sail...

These things are managed and approved, end of life is a consideration for approval for us related space launches.

Much of the coal we have is because ancient trees weren't biodegradable. It would just build up because nothing could eat it for quite a long time. Nature also has a waste stream problem.

Not at all, that "waste" was safe and stable where it was. We try to get it all out and ignite it because it's easier and cheaper than using the sun's energy directly. That ignition and corresponding sudden release in the atmosphere is what's causing issues.

I think that is to say nature had a waste problem. Nowadays things all get eaten and recycled back in

More accurately, one Department of nature (Arbors) out-developed another (Decomposers) through the development of lignin.

This was eventually remedied.

EU has packaging tax for all goods for waste management.

and then they burn them in Bulgaria ;)

This bug is called “the tragedy of the commons” and people have been working on a hot fix for a while but I’m not sure it can be fully patched while running capitalism.

By far the most common solution for tragedy of the commons is property rights and that also what works the best in most cases. Solving tragedy of the commons in Britain is literally a major step in development of capitalism.

Modern economists have since done a huge amount of work on this topic and multiple noble prices have been given to work on the subject.

The idea that it is inherently a capitalist problem is nonsense, its a universal problem that exists in all human societies from hunter-gather to soviet socialism and all forms of capitalism. It can not be 'fully patched' in any system of human interaction. Humans have found millions of solution for the problem in a million different ways, there is no universal solution.

I would recommend Elinor Ostrom work to illustrate this and how such situation can be solved. She had worked on this problem for 40+ and got a noble price for it.

Other things to read are, Ronald Coase, Armen Alchian, Douglass North.

Capitalism patches such problems, by incentivizing solutions. Got problems with space junk? someone is working on making a buck by solving your problem cheaper than you can, including by making a path to finding value in what would otherwise be just tossed.

Yes, despite what China may want you to think they are capitalist. Democracy =/= capitalism, you can have an authoritarian state with a capitalist economy.

Also, even if China was a command economy that doesn't mean they too couldn't cause pollution. Its just that "the tragedy of the commons" is a specifically market economy problem.

The Soviets left plenty of environmental damage, strong consensus they were not capitalist.

Soviets were proud of economic damage and the strength of human being putting rivers to flow in other direction for the benefit of a soviet man. All sort of talk about protecting the nature was by people brainwashed by the western ideals and propaganda.

I consider China to be a communist country that understands capitalism and uses it to its advantage.

A while capitalism encourages the tragedy of the commons and communism has the potential of solving it, it doesn't mean it will. Communism is a better system in theory, but from experience, it doesn't work as well in practice.

> and communism has the potential of solving it


The entire idea of communism is meant to solve this problem, it is even in the name.

And the solution is essentially using force. Someone will guard the cookie jar and make sure you don't take more than one. Workers are supposed to form a collective to enforce these rules.

For example, you don't just launch a satellite, you tell the state you want to launch a satellite and if some council decides it will have a positive impact on society, you will be paid you a fixed salary to build it. This way, you can take a step back and think about the whole process, from start to finish and not just the money making part, there are no competitors to undercut you.

At least that's theory. In practice it is very vulnerable to corruption and it doesn't incentivizes productive work.

> And the solution is essentially using force. Someone will guard the cookie jar and make sure you don't take more than one.

Sounds like private property to me.

The gatekeeper tries to defend the commons and, even assuming they succeed, they can themselves abuse the commons or collect bribes, etc.

> In practice it is very vulnerable to corruption and it doesn't incentivizes productive work.


It’s funny, sad, and telling that your post is not so popular on this particular forum. It certainly adds to the conversation, in my opinion.

It's actually mentioned all the time, so whoever downvoted was probably bored with conversations about one thing always turning into political rehashes of the same old things over and over.

Capitalismum delenda est.

> It's a sobering reminder that the low-Earth orbit's space junk problem is a ticking time bomb.

"Space junk that can hit the ISS" and "space junk that's a long-term problem" are two nearly separate groups.

Why is that? Is the ISS in such a low orbit that any junk in the same orbit will slow down from the drag and de-orbit itself?

Yes. Not instantly but on average it's not a particularly long wait. Even just dipping down there in a non-circular orbit causes a lot of drag.

True, but remember that the orbits above LEO are also full of junk that will eventually be coming down through LEO before deorbiting. So despite the short lifetime of debris there it'll still be a long-term problem in this orbit as there'll be new junk even if we would stop orbiting stuff.

There'll be crap coming down for thousands of years, including some nasty cold war relics like nuclear reactor cores.

The greatest concentration of space junk is around 500 miles and will take decades to decay down to 250 miles where the ISS or orbits.

Indeed, but this is what makes it a long-term problem :)

It's a sobering reminder, what, every year? Since the 90's at least. Yet very few people are doing anything about it.

And where is the evidence that this is actually debris, space junk, and not rock or other "natural" material? NASA projects this idea that space is clean, that the only stuff in orbit is what we put there. That is simply incorrect. Literal tons of material falls onto earth from space each day. Virtually none of it is tracked. Calling any impact the result of "debris" requires some evidence or logic to explain the source.

edit: 2019 paper listing over 1400 detected impact sites on ISS. https://www.hou.usra.edu/meetings/orbitaldebris2019/orbital2...

I don't think the term "space debris" is only applied to man-made space debris. Yes, there are rocks and other stuff out there, and those are just as dangerous as the man-made debris. AFAIK both types fall under the term space debris.

Of course, the fact that there's more and more space debris is quite clearly linked to everything we launch.

This is somewhat correct. "Space debris" does include both human and natural debris. Since most natural debris orbits the sun and most human debris orbits the earth, Nasa uses the term "orbital debris" to refer to human caused debris.[0]

The difference in location means that while more natural debris enters earth's atmosphere, that doesn't mean that chances of colliding with natural debris is commensurately high. Orbital debris spends much more time near earth before it burns up, so has much higher collision chances per object that burns up.

In fact, the chance of collision with natural debris vs orbital debris will be very dependent on the specific orbit you are discussing as orbital debris is not evenly distributed.[1]

I higly doubt that there isn't a significant range of orbits where the risk of damage from orbital debris exceeds the risk from natural debris.

Edit: added citations

[0] https://www.nasa.gov/mission_pages/station/news/orbital_debr...

[1] https://www.nasa.gov/news/debris_faq.html

Really? I havent seen that math. For that to be true, the number of collisions would have to be rising faster than the rate at which we put stuff up there. Natural sources would cause a steady increase (more stuff launched, more exposed to natural impacts) whereas not-natural junk impacts should increase at a rate higher than exposure (compound increased exposure with increased risk from more objects). All i have seen are studies saying that the number of impacts is increasing, not that they are accellerating faster than launch rates.

No math is involved, only common sense : there's a certain amount of natural space debris surrounding planet earth. This amount has reached a steady state over the past few millions or billions of years. Over the past few decades we've started launching stuff into orbit. Some of that stuff explodes. Hence, there is now more debris surrounding planet earth.

Whether or not the amount of extra space debris has already caused an increase in collisions is a different matter, for which some statistics would be required. But that wasn't the point I was making.

In fact, it's quite the opposite of the point I was making : something has hit the ISS, and whether it's man-made or natural is (AFAIK) not specified at this time.

> there's a certain amount of natural space debris surrounding planet earth. This amount has reached a steady state over the past few millions or billions of years.

For what it is worth, I would question this assumption. Why would the amount of natural space debris around earth be at a steady state? Meteor showers [1] are one example of how the amount of space debris is not at a steady state.

[1] Meteor Showers: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Meteor_shower

Something hits the ISS almost every day. This collision gets noticed because the hole it left is larger than average, but if you look close enough the ISS is covered in tiny impact damages.

This paper (2019) lists over 1400 impact sites on the ISS, and that is only the ones that have been discovered. https://www.hou.usra.edu/meetings/orbitaldebris2019/orbital2...

The technical term is "micrometeoroids and orbital debris" (MMOD). (https://www.nasa.gov/centers/wstf/site_tour/remote_hypervelo...)

Does it matter? If you're upset about the specific language used in the article, I'm sure there's ways of letting them know that doesn't involve a comment section of reasonably intelligent people.

Yes because this is part of a narrative re space debris. Lots of people are looking into debris/junk removal. Those projects are being given serious funding. If the impact risk from natural objects far outweighs the risk from space junk, those projects are pointless. We should then focus on hardening spacecraft against inevitable collision rather than attempting to remove existing debris. The debate is relevant to which risk mitigation strategy is most effective.

Most orbital junk flies between 7-800km above Earth and the vast majority is lower than 2,000km.

The orbital graveyard is 35,000km. Assuming you are right and our biggest concern is regular space rocks, then why are these areas of especially high concern?

If you saying that the distribution of space rocks should be constantly high like what we see in our rings of trash. But it's not. Earth practically has rings that we can detect. Where did all that material come from? Why is the density of space trash detectably higher the closer to earth you get?

Before you say gravity, remember that these things are in stable orbit. Wandering space rocks have a very low chance of achieving that without intervention.

Distribution may be homogenous but velocity is not. The natural rocks near earth are much faster and therefore more dangerous. They are falling towards earth, picking up velocity as they dip into our gravity well.

Distribution of space debris is not homogeneous at all.

The natural background of rocks/dust should be evenly distributed, with exceptions for things like comet tails.

> should be evenly distributed

This is definitely not true. I don't know why you would expect a 3+ body gravity system would result in an even distribution of natural debris.

It depends on scale. Certainly there are areas of our solar system with greater or lesser densities, but those differences are vast. There should be no appreciable difference in density across a few hundred kilometers.

That is very different from your intial statement, doesn't backup your original point, and is only true if you include an additional list of exceptions (such as plantary rings and lagrange points).

I simply don't see any facts to backup your thesis that natural debris are a greater risk than orbital debris to spacecraft in earth orbit (esp the lower orbits).

35 years ago we used to draw solutions in school about how to clean up space junk. They had us convinced space would be unusable in a few years if nothing was done.

I wonder if we will ever get to the space debris situation that is depicted in the movie Space Sweepers.


Reduce, Reuse, Deorbit

(3R's was a campaign manufactured by the plastics industry to shift environmental blame onto individuals rather than what industry could've done, such as: waste stream capture, lifecycle management, material minimization, minimum recycled content, and so on.)

> 3R's was a campaign manufactured by the plastics industry

A good idea coming from a bad source doesn't stop it from being a good idea though so I'm not sure why people bring this up so much.

Individuals and companies both have a responsibility to reduce waste.

Oh I do think it was a good idea, and I do think waste disposal overall is pretty good - even if plastic is not disposed separately, it's sorted out in the waste processing plants.

The problem at the moment lies not so much in waste collection and end users, but what happens to it afterwards. For example, plastic is considered "recycled" once it's been separated and baled up. But most plastic can't actually be reused. A lot of plastic bales like that are exported - no longer our problem - and becomes invisible. It's often just put in landfills or incinerated after that. Would not be surprised if it's dumped in the ocean directly or via a river either.

Public attention can only handle so much, so purposefully diverting it towards suboptimal focuses in order to make more money is not good behaviour, and deserves being denounced.


> Starting in the late 1980s, the plastics industry spent tens of millions of dollars promoting recycling through ads, recycling projects and public relations, telling people plastic could be and should be recycled.

How long have we known about this for now? At what stage does denouncing it become its own form of diversion?

I’m not sure I follow you. From your link:

> Industry Spent Millions Selling Recycling — To Sell More Plastic

> For decades, Americans have been sorting their trash believing that most plastic could be recycled. But the truth is, the vast majority of all plastic produced can't be or won't be recycled.

So yeah, the companies are keen on having public opinion thinking “consume without fear, we’ll recycle it”, because it has higher margin than being cleaner themselves. Fighting disinformation is not diinformation.

> “consume without fear, we’ll recycle it”

But who is still loudly saying this disinformation and who is taking it seriously that it's worth bringing up whenever someone mentions that recycling is worthwhile? "Reduce, reuse, recycle" is in priority order too.

Why deorbit? It cost a lot of money to get that junk off the planet, surely its more valuable up there for somebody smart to harvest it and reuse it in place.

Well, the stuff is there right now, but there’s nobody harvesting them because it’s nowhere near economically viable. Maybe someday in the future, but we can’t just keep polluting the orbits while waiting for that hypothetical day.

LEO stuff is going to deorbit due to drag anyway sooner or later, and we very much would like that to be ”sooner”. Higher orbits are stable for a long time, and intentional deorbiting is not feasible anyway due to the amount of delta-v needed. So there are ”graveyard orbits” into which satellites should be moved before they’re out of propellant.

Anyway, intercepting and capturing defunct satellites on a large scale would be surprisingly costly because of the large variety of orbital planes involved. Inclination changes are expensive with regard to delta-v!

It isn't worth collecting.

This is Earth orbit, not the ocean or some strip of land.

The debris zooms around the planet on all kinds of trajectories and it's immensely difficult to match velocity and direction in order to capture it.

It's worse than trying to collect machine gun bullets mid-flight that were fired from a rotating carousel by a guy with shaking hands...

Some parts, like spent second rocket stages, present some value because they could be reused as wet-workshops [1]. Material value alone, however, doesn't justify the cost of capture in most cases.

[1] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wet_workshop

Most of its value is in the energy in its orbit (not in its altitude). But to harvest it to use for something else you would need to change its orbit substantially, which requires even more energy. It would only be worthwhile for large clouds of debris in mostly the same orbit, which tend not to occur.

Sounds interesting in a sci fi fashion, but you'd need a lot of equipment in orbit to do so - forges, smelters, welding equipment, and of course laborers to process things. I don't think, all things, challenges and risks considered, that it's viable at this time. Besides, the main problem is in the small fragments, which are very hard to actually catch (safely), let alone reprocess. The bigger pieces of space junk are less of a problem, if only because they can be tracked.

I don’t think most countries would want another country harvesting their ‘abandoned’ space junk :)

> 3R's was a campaign manufactured by the plastics industry

I do not believe this is true. The 3R's is widely believed to have come out of the first Earth Day in 1970.

While the oil and plastics companies did put a lot of effort into promoting the idea of plastic recycling, those efforts were later and didn't really start until 1989.

I have to check Space Sweepers out, I liked the series Planetes. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Planetes

Wow, I've told this idea a few times as a joke. Being a space-trash collector, floating around and giving large debris a little kick to deorbit it. Will have a look at that movie... :-D

Oh, Planetes got a movie?

Does anyone have any ballpark figures on the decay time of the debris blanket we're putting around the earth? Say we plunge ourselves into nuclear or biological anarchy and society regresses 50.000 years... will our descendants still suffer our shortsightedness?

I found the gif in this Reddit post very interesting in that regard: https://www.reddit.com/r/dataisbeautiful/comments/lczisw/oc_...

You can see the effect of atmospheric drag and resulting decay for LEO objects. And how catastrophic collisions are.

Edit: And original source https://mads-hatters.github.io/

That strongly depends on the altitude. LEO still has fairly strong atmospheric drag, so trash from there lives on the order of years. Higher up, say geostationary, the drag is very small, so trash is stable for hundreds or thousands of years. But then again, there is a lot more space the further out you go.

> there is a lot more space the further out you go.

This made curious how much more space you get, so I did some maths.

According to Wikipedia, LEO is basically anything below 2000KM, so we'll call 1000KM the average. Geostationary orbit is apparently 35,786KM above the surface (at the equator. The earth is not a perfect sphere).

The diameter of the earth is 12,742KM, making the circumference of this LEO ~43,171KM

Let's say there's 10KM between every piece of debris, meaning you can fit 4317 piece of debris into this orbit. (that's not how it really works of course, this is just an arbitary number to use as a comparison).

At geostationary orbit, the circumference is ~152,000KM, meaning the same 4317 pieces of debris would now be ~35KM apart instead. Or you could fit 15,200 peices of debris in, still spaced 10KM apart. Or you could say you have ~252% more space at the higher orbit.

Decades or centuries above 1000km...

Probably if we stopped launching new stuff, most of it would be gone in a few years to a few decades. Most of the orbits of this stuff aren't that stable. Most satellites have decaying orbits that need correcting regularly.

I have to object the phrasing debris blanket here though. If you compare low orbit (where most of this stuff is) to the combined surface areas of our oceans, it's larger because it also includes the surface area of our landmass and you have to take into account the larger sphere radius of an extra 100km.

Just driving the point home that it's a pretty big surface area if you assume it's effectively 2D. Which of course it isn't. If you then add the third dimension with say a couple of hundred kilometer that make up low earth orbit, the probability of hitting anything drops pretty low. That stuff should be extremely rare.

There's a bit of debris in orbit. Some of the larger bits, we track. Of course if you do hit something, the speed differences mean a collision can do some real damage.

Compared to naturally occurring stuff (meteorites, space rocks, etc) it's not that much of an additional risk. ISS does get hit by that stuff occasionally. A bigger rock (pebble sized) could do a lot of damage. I don't think that has happened yet. It's a non zero risk but an acceptable one.

I think the main problem is that the stuff is moving so fast wrt eachother that a particle isn't 0-dimensional but effectively becomes 1-dimensional, a long trace.

So you'd have to think of the debris as miles long strands, and suddenly it seems quite likely to hit one.

> Compared to naturally occurring stuff (meteorites, space rocks, etc) it's not that much of an additional risk.

Do you have a citation for this?

It seems to be only a couple of years (losing 100m altitude per day [1] ) for the ISS to fall out of orbit if it was left alone. I guess space debris in the same orbit would be the same.

[1] https://space.stackexchange.com/questions/9482/how-long-woul...

Higher orbits would last essentially forever though.

These tiny objects aren't that disastrous either. From what I understand, the insulating blankets destroy them and dissipate their energy, limiting damage to the underlying structure.

Anywhere from “later this hour” to “not until the sun grows in its demise to engulf the earths orbit entirely”

I’m fairly hopeful that it is a problem with a solution once there is adequate motivation.

If it looks like we're heading down that path, we should send a probe with a complete history of our race, all of our known science, etc. to a lagrange point for safe keeping.

This depends on the orbit of the debris and the probability of getting hit (you are unlikely to ever get to 0, and technically, it makes little difference if you got a man-made bolt hitting you at 1km/s, or a naturally-occuring space rock of similar mass).

Most spacefaring countries have adopted a rule of getting low-earth-orbit objects out of space within 25 years of their mission's end-of-life.

Some (though relatively few) objects are in high orbits. These will take millenia - the good news is that they are also relatively slow, which makes them easier to avoid.

And then we have people shooting their sportscar into space on an orbit that will last virtually indefinitely.

> the good news is that they are also relatively slow, which makes them easier to avoid.

This is not true. Higher orbits do circle the earth less frequently...but that is not because they are slower, but because they have further to go. In fact, the higher your orbit, the faster you are going.

The tesla is not in earth orbit afaik. Though it is on an earth intercept orbit i guess.

> Over 23,000 pieces are being tracked in low-Earth orbit to help satellites and the ISS avoid collisions - but they're all about the size of a softball or larger.

Why do they always do this, give a non-standard unit of measurement which 90% of countries in the world for no reference for.

Its like when they describe something as "X number of football fields" - Nice one, only one country plays and misnames Handegg. its useless to the rest of us.

There's a whole culture of mocking such units with invented ones.

My favourite so far would be "burger per square eagle", which is a unit of distance.

It's actually sort of a puzzle - you have to imagine how to interpret the units so that they match the result.

I remember starting off using someone's idea to take a bald eagle's average wingspan (2.7m - which is incorrect BTW). What follows is that the burger must represent volume - I modeled the burger as a half sphere with a diameter of 13cm, which yielded ~500ccm - sounded believable enough.

The only issue remaining was that the unit was very small - a small fraction of a millimetre.

Then again measuring things in megaburgers (per square eagle) sounds fairly natural - a lot like kilometres or kilograms.

Softball is played in more countries than the USA, albeit rarely professionally. It isn't unusually to see softballs for sale in your local Decathlon.

A softball is not even a unit of measurement :-)

I had to google what it is.

> only one country plays and misnames Handegg

In Chinese it's called "olive ball".

I understand South Korea plays it.

Aren't a soccer and football field around the same length?

This is fascinating, but I do have an off topic question: why does a robotic arm need a thermal blanket?

Probably to mitigate material stress due to temperature swings from alternating exposure to sunlight.

The only way to lose heat in space is by radiating away infrared. If you have motors that generate heat you have to have a solution for getting rid of that heat. There’s also the sun blasting you with more than a kilowatt per square meter which goes from 100% to 0% in 90 minutes in low earth orbit. One way to mitigate this is to add mass, but making a long splindly arm considerably heavier is problematic.

Imagine all the things you would need to do if you were running a marathon on a course that alternated half a dozen times between a blizzard and a death valley heat wave... you would have to work with many many constraints and come up with a solution that worked for opposite extremes while not interfering with the thing you’re actually trying to do.

Thermodynamics in space are crazy. You usually either overcool or overheat (depending on facing the Sun or facing deep space) there is no normal operation. Thermal insulation is a must.

I'm no expert, but there's probably some electronics in that arm whose operating temperature range is a lot higher than the temperature of space.

Typically the electronics are trying to shed heat, not retain it since there is no air convection.

While there is no air convection, there is a lot of heat loss via radiation.

Of course, if there's a CPU in there that's drawing lots of power (e.g. image processing), it will have to shed that heat. But if there's only some electronics in there that don't eat up too much power, there's a good chance they'll use the thermal blanket (and even heaters) to keep them warm.

I don't have the details on the Canadarm, but I can tell you that a lot of electronics on satellites use thermal blankets and heating elements to keep warm.

Aw come on let's not shame the poor robot arm. Space is a cold and lonely place--I'd want a blanket too. :)

A lot of people ask what can be done. There is a lot.

A huge part of why the ISS has to move because the uncertainty of the objects is to high. If we can get much more accurate measurements many of these issues become far less important.

Currently its really just the us military who has radar for this. What we should have is multiple nations each having multiple radars.

Beyond that, the next step is laser based ground station that can both get far more accurate measurements and potentially move the items as well. ESA is working on a demonstration of such a system. Again, it would be best if multiple nations had these.

From these two tools we can create a real accurate shared global database with very accurate measure. This alone should massively reduce the amount of near collision events.

Then beyond that we can start to launch missions to actually capture debris from higher orbits and throw make it burn up. ESA has also planned a demonstration mission for that.

To really do that right we really want to have a reusable space transporter that can be refueled from some sort of cheap space fuel truck that can ride along on SpaceX flights.

We can figure this out. Some DoD people have already talked about putting a price on individual objects so a commercial garbage removal market can start to happen. And with SpaceX Starship launch prices should get down to prices where these things can be done much cheaper.

If you speak German this is a great resources: https://raumzeit-podcast.de/2020/11/17/rz092-weltraumschrott...

US military is the only entity that provides data to the public for free; but they only provide TLEs which aren't sufficient for close passes. TLEs are processed (they are just like JPEGs in cameras, in a sense), what you need for reliable prediction is raw measurements (which they don't publish). There are also commercial networks used by satellite operators for precise orbit determination of objects of particular interest. (i.e. about to collide).

Satellite laser ranging is also nothing new, it's used for GNSS and other satellites requiring determination accuracy. But current instruments mostly work with retroreflectors on the satellites, and the coverage is a problem since the orbit can only be predicted for a limited amount of time.

Space users are trashier than my immature neighbors having a pool party. I don't get why space should be treated any differently than land in the middle of nowhere. Tragedy of the Commons is what happens when people just toss their Big Mac wrappers and expended second stages out the window.

Its an international issue. And after the Outer space treaty getting more space legislation threw any sort of international organization has turned out to be impossible.

The nations are afraid of adding more regulation for sat de-orbiting. Because its easy to add regulation requiring de-orbiting is in place, but if your sat is dead, you don't actually pay for removing it.

The regulation that is needed is that if you leave something behind you have to de-orbit it but since there is no commercial service for this or a known cost, all the nations are afraid to do it, as the sat providers would just leave the country.

Hopefully these things will be demonstrate and there will be an actual price and then you can potentially insure for it.

“and potentially move the items as well. ESA is working on a demonstration of such a system. Again, it would be best if multiple nations had these.”

I fear the military would love to have that capability.

Well, its not like you can pin-ball that stuff around. And if the sat is active it can easily counteract anything you can do with a laser. So I don't think there is much military value moving a sat incredibly slowly overtime.

Its mostly useful to move dead objects.

I was hinting at nudging dead objects to ‘accidentally’ collide with enemy satellites.

Even if they can move away, that’s using valuable fuel.

Can we all chip in for a fund so the countries that have no qualms about the inevitable tragedy of the commons situation can test their anti-sat missiles elsewhere?


These tests aren't that bad. They are low enough that everything burns up within a year or two. As I understand it's the higher but still low orbits that are at risk of becoming a wall of debris for decades.

Only if those 'western' countries which care so much about the space and environment clean up their mess first. The mess which is many times more than other countries.

I'm not saying that these tests are right but the hypocrisy of these western countries is really baffling at times.

I'm not sure they were pointing out specifically non western countries. According to the article they linked, the US is one of the 4 countries that did such tests.

Yes, and there was a huge qualitative & quantitative difference in the ways in which the the tests were designed & carried out. The US tests were specifically designed to be at altitudes where all debris would quickly de-orbit due to drag. China, OTOH, blasted one of their weather satellites in a much higher orbit - 528mi up - resulting in far higher counts of of high velocity space junk which will orbit for centuries. It was the worst incident of creation of space junk in history [1]. China has since committed to more responsible practices.

[1] https://www.space.com/3415-china-anti-satellite-test-worriso...

I wrote the previous comment with respect to the link provided by the original post. It linked the 2019 Indian Test which was done in a manner that the debris would burn in the atmosphere itself within few weeks.


> According to Jonathan McDowell, an astrophysicist at Harvard–Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics, some debris might persist for a year, but most should burn up in the atmosphere within several weeks.

The perceived tone of the original post made me comment the previous comment (which is not only true about ASAT missiles but literally everything else). I'm sorry if my judgement of the original post was wrong.


Its unfortunate but countries should invest in anti-satellite technology - especially countries with no bone is the space fight. Should a political situation develop that makes access to satellites advantageous - reducing LEO surveillance satellites to rubble is the best solution.

Exactly, it's weird to think that militarization of space should be something no one can defend themselves against. If a radar installation or military intelligence unit on land is a valid target, it should be in space too.

This testing and development of ASAT weapons is fully a response to the countries putting military technology in space.

Since none of the downvotes replied.. I guess you are getting downvotes because others don’t like the idea, though your premise for national security seems reasonable.

Yes, or let them eat cake?

Besides, the asymmetrical payoff of developing tech to not only neutralise one-sided strategic mega-advantages only increase in leverage the worse the side-effects of the neutralising action become. The negotiating capital this generates (in the India vs China conflict) makes it an almost forced move.

How about we also put a hard limit on the number of allowed satellites in space and auction the remaining "capacity".

Deal. I'm handing the auction. Everyone can start making offers to the auction, I'll accept the best one at the end of June. I'll give my banking details to the winner so they can wire me the money.

That sounds like a lot of work. Can we just post our banking details here, and you withdraw the money if we win?

The 2nd Bank of the Least Antilles

Routing 7381947295

Account 82848917433728

Passphrase: Cash cow

Privacy is so overrated.

This is far to simplistic. The danger of different sat depends on a huge number of factors. A hard limit is nonsense proposal.

There are tons of ideas and plans that have been put forward there is no lack of those.

There is a lack of international cooperation to establish international law. And even within national regulation there is a unwillingness to fully crack down in fear of driving sat providers away.

Bottom line, it will take a death (or multiple) before countries even consider getting serious about this problem. Unfortunately, losing a bird would be bad and get headlines for a news cycle but that is 'just money'.

I am curious on everyone perspective. I have seen a handful of launch start-ups trying to create lower cost launching to get into low-orbit. My concern is that by lowering the bar to entry we will be putting up lower quality products and also increase the magnitude of objects in orbit.

I am conflicted because I also know that we will get more progress through lower-cost launches. It feels to me that it shouldn't be only considering launches but rather the entire lifecycle of the operation. The longer we wait the more irreversible damage is done it seems.

Interested in agreement or counterpoints to expand my opinion.

> I have seen a handful of launch start-ups trying to create lower cost launching to get into low-orbit. My concern is that by lowering the bar to entry we will be putting up lower quality products and also increase the magnitude of objects in orbit.

Launch start-ups are the least of your concerns, SpaceX the most established provider is, they are lowering the price far more then any new startup. The start ups are actually very expensive in terms of cost to orbit.

> It feels to me that it shouldn't be only considering launches but rather the entire lifecycle of the operation.

They are, this is already regulated. If you launch something to get a license you have to show how your whole lifecycle will go.

The problem that is left is about what to do when your sat fails and can not complete the lifecycle. As of yet there is no requirement to complete it in such a case.

Such a requirement will come once we reliably demonstrate how to de-orbit dead object and there can be a price put on the service (and therefore instance will insure it).

Thanks for the information. Clearly it is still expensive to ship to low orbit - but as the costs come down more people will be able to get in. Your comments make me feel a bit better about it.

I think my concern with VC funded start-ups is that they don't have funding to actually do full lifecycle if the company never makes it or if revenue never arrives. In which case the full lifecycle component doesn't really exist.

Scary to think that we might have more https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Phineas_Gage in space

As each piece of space junk is added, does the probability of getting hit increase linearly? Or is it a curve? I ask because the press uses language like "ticking time bomb" which implies some sort of curve or vicious cycle or tipping point that will be hit. Is it that the collisions would in turn create more space junk, at a high enough rate that this would cause a true acceleration?

Kessler syndrome is somewhat similar to a nuclear reaction (the math may be similar?): below a critical density, collisions are rare enough that orbital decay means that the chance of the next collision is ~0. Above that critical density, a collision produces multiple pieces of debris which are then involved in further collisions. The chance of a collision goes up exponentially and the only solution is not launching anything until decay has cleared the orbit.

>"The damage is limited to a small section of the arm boom and thermal blanket. Canadarm2 is continuing to conduct its planned operations."

> ..[the] space debris problem does seem to be increasing. Last year, the ISS had to perform emergency maneuvers three times in order to avoid collisions with space debris at its altitude of around 400 kilometers (250 miles).

I wish I could do something about this. What can an “ordinary” civilian in the US do to help? Are we limited to electing politicians with the hope they follow through on a potential campaign promise?

Space debris isn't a new problem or something that's coming entirely out of the blue. NASA has almost certainly built it into the plans and engineering to keep ISS going for years and years. The fact they do maneuvers, keep meticulous track of large debris, etc. is a great sign that the systems they have in place are working. I'd honestly be more worried about the political capitol and will to spend money on the space program drying up more than debris strikes.

Depends on how much money you wish to donate or how much skilled you are. Other than that I don't think there is much need for “ordinary” civilian to create FUD regarding this in online forums.

watch animes about collecting space debris

Would it be feasible with some near-future technology to have an autonomous space rover in orbit that goes around collecting space junk?

One of my plans for my retirement days is to make a cubesat that uses a solar sail to gain momentum and then somehow give that momentum to space junk so that the junk falls down to atmosphere faster. Then use the sails again to increase the momentum of the space garbage collector for the next piece of garbage. Unfortunately this plan has still quite a few gaping holes in it.

Sounds like a good plan to add some space junk in form of a cubesat with solar sails.

No not really, the massive stuff yes..maybe, but small stuff no. Just imagine the power you need to go on the same orbit and around the same speed just to pickup a fist sized trash piece, then you need energy again to slow it down so it can fall back to earth, or you take i with you (and that needs more energy too for you next trash pickup, because your mass got bigger).

It's the old story: Oh we cut all the trees, time to invent a machine that can extract CO2 from the atmosphere.

Elsa-D is up there now running some tests.


3 major options are discussed in https://youtu.be/yS1ibDImAYU

Edit: that's an 8 minutes Kurzgesagt video.

You can shoot lasers at it and the vapor knocks it out of orbit.

We're approaching Kessler syndrome. A situation where cascading collisions make certain orbits unusable. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kessler_syndrome

Everyone has probably heard that term dozens of times

Is anyone working on a Star Trek style "deflector shield"?

IIRC, NASA was working on something like this. They wanted to enclose a space ship with a bubble of charged particles and then create a strong magnetic field with or through these particles. Anything metallic would have been deflected.

Something I imagine might work (though not really as a shield, but more of a preventative measure) would be to have a few objects in orbit with a very large surface area, so that orbital debris is likely to run into it and get knocked into an orbit that intersects the atmosphere. Let's say these objects have a thousand times more surface area than the objects you actually care about. This would mean that any random piece of debris is far more likely to hit the large debris target than the important satellites.

Making something that can be hit by random objects at extreme velocities without generating even more debris sounds like a hard problem, though. Ice would be an interesting material because it sublimates, but it happens too quickly to be practically useful.

The problem is that at orbital velocity, the debris that hits the target will break off pieces of the target, and then you just have more debris.

I'm thinking something like a non-Newtonian gel in a foil wrap

Space might not be warm enough for most STFs. Perhaps a graphene / aerogel composite in a gold foil winter holiday gift basket wrap.

What's the maximum traction that an electromagnet can cause? Is a thermonuclear powered super- in orbit thinkable? At least most human produced space garbage is magnetic I assume? So if we send multiple of those super magnets into orbit they would clean by slowly attracting small objects. So we reduce the problem from many tiny objects to a few larger easier to track electric dustballs. Anyone has some insight on why that does not work?

> At least most human produced space garbage is magnetic I assume?

You would assume wrong. Given that putting stuff into orbit is a battle with the rocket equation non-magnetic material should be expected because Iron and Iron containing alloys tend to be very heavy compared to similar structures in non-magnetic materials. Aluminum would be pretty common. Of course some of it will be magnetic but to assume that for the bulk will almost certainly be wrong.

I would guess that most orbital debris is aluminum, titanium, paint, or some sort of plastic or plastic composite (e.g. epoxy/carbon fiber composite). Even a powerful magnet would not likely do much to attract these materials. For example, titanium medical implants are considered safe for MRI imaging, which uses a powerful magnetic field.

Time to raise the orbit to 2000 km.

Hey, you're cheating with unlimited fuel.

Will something like X-37B be able to deorbit bigger chunks of the debris and collect smaller ones?

Didn't the Chinese blow up a satellite 10 years ago?

You are referring to the 2007 Chinese anti-satellite missile test, during which the Chinese FY-1C weather satellite was intentionally destroyed by a "kinetic kill vehicle".

But FY-1C was at an orbit height of 865 kilometres, and the ISS orbits at less than half that altitude.

It's not impossible for debris to have reached the ISS, but it is unlikely.


From your link: "As of April 2019, 3000 of the 10,000 pieces of space debris routinely tracked by the US Military as a threat to the International Space Station were known to have originated from the 2007 satellite shoot down.". This does not make it seem unlikely to me.

That test is still responsible for 30% of debris up there. And is scattered across quite a wide band of orbital altitudes.

Another amazingly horrifying example is Project West Ford[0] in 1963 which dispersed 480 000 000 copper needles at an altitude of ~3500 km to create an artificial ionosphere facilitating military communications.

[0]: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Project_West_Ford

“The orbit and design of the individual needles were chosen to promote rapid orbital decay and reentry into the atmosphere.”. However needles unexpectedly clumped and there are clumps of them still orbiting.

Scroll down to page three of: https://www.orbitaldebris.jsc.nasa.gov/quarterly-news/pdfs/o...

Project Obvious Idioms ended in utter failure when the haystacks were lost, creating a conundrum of Biblical proportions.

Who thought it would be a great, timeless idea to dump a bunch of copper wire strands at 3.5 Mm? Oh, it was that pinhead: Walter E. Morrow. Thanks for that military-industrial complex contribution to littering. Let's stick a Tesla, Lego, and some dead people in space while we're at it. We did that already too? Why don't you tell me these things? Throw me a frickin bone here, people. Maybe we should think carefully about permanent space garbage or space sunshades before rolling with what seems like a brilliant technical solution?

Call your senator and demand force field legislation now!

Space Force Fields!

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