Space Junk Endangers NASA Satellites, Spacecraft

NASA needs to speed cleanup of floating debris in orbit around Earth, not just work around it, said National Research Council report.

Elizabeth Montalbano, Contributor

September 2, 2011

2 Min Read

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The amount of space debris clanging around in orbit around the Earth has reached a "tipping point," putting into jeopardy the safety of operational satellites and spacecraft from NASA and other space agencies, according to a new report.

While NASA has active and mature micrometeoroids and orbital debris (MMOD) programs to clean up space debris, shrinking budgets and the increased severity of the problem are hampering these efforts, according to a report by the National Research Council.

The problem has gotten so big that, over the years, technology changes and additions have been made to satellites and the International Space Station (ISS) to protect them from floating debris with which they could collide.

Critical components of satellites, for example, have been moved from their exterior surface to deep inside their structures to protect them from debris, while engineers added MMOD shielding to the ISS to protect components and even astronauts from "potentially catastrophic damage," according to the report.

Moreover, during missions, astronauts would orient the space shuttle in such a way to shield thermal protection and radiation systems from debris damage, as well as inspect these systems for damage before re-entering the Earth's atmosphere.

While NASA's MMOD programs "have used their resources responsibly and have played an increasingly essential role in protecting the safety of both crewed and uncrewed space operations," the space-debris problem is quickly outpacing the funding of these programs, researchers found. It's gotten so dire that elements of debris are even colliding with each other and breaking into smaller pieces, exacerbating the problem further.

Researchers have recommended that NASA develop and formalize a strategic plan that prioritizes funds and efforts across various MMOD program needs to help mitigate the problem. Officials also should revise and update their plans to clear out space debris at regular intervals, according to the report.

The report also outlines areas of technological research NASA should pursue to help get rid of space junk. These areas include more accurate computer modeling of sources of space debris and predictions of impact damage based on a statistics-based approach, according to the report.

The agency also should increase efforts to characterize the damage resulting from impacts from orbital debris of various particle shapes and densities, as well as expand its research of meteoroids to better understand the possible link between spacecraft electrical anomalies and major meteor showers, the report found.

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