Shrapnel in Space Threatens the International Space Station

Indeed. This might come as a surprise but a stray 5-inch chunk of an old rocket engine in orbit was recently threatening to damage the International Space Station. So much that the crew had moved into an escape vehicle in case the impact occurred. Thankfully, the chunk passed a safe distance from the station. Now you might wonder how a 5-inch piece of metal could harm the ISS. That’s because you probably don’t know that it was traveling at a few thousand miles an hour; space junk, and everything else in a near-earth orbit moves at such speeds. If it would’ve hit, it’d been catastrophic.

All through the Cold War, the US and the erstwhile Soviet Union were involved in what we call the Space Race: domination of the limitless beyond. It all started with the Soviets sending Sputnik into orbit, and then it was a snowball in no time. Hundreds of artificial satellites were launched during that time for purposes still secret and classified, and all of it remained up there. You see, satellites have no real engine, just small thrusters to help them maintain orbit, so they can’t be shot back to the Earth, and though there is technology to shoot down satellites, it is expensive. So once a satellite is past its age, it is simply discarded in orbit, or at most moved to what is called a graveyard orbit, a few hundred kilometres above the geosynchronous orbit.

However, it is not these defunct satellites themselves that pose a threat, but small pieces of debris which now dot outer space. Below orbits of 2,000 kms, the average impact speed is 36,000 kmph. At these speeds, even a 1 mm metal chip can do as much damage as a rifle bullet, and a pea-size ball is equivalent to a 400 pound safe travelling at 100 kmph. And a metal sphere the size of the junk that threatened the ISS is as lethal as 40 sticks of dynamite. Infact NASA has to frequently replace windows on the space shuttle that have been damaged by objects as small as a flake of paint.

There are currently about 6000 defunct satellites in orbit, and another 10,000 to 11,000 pieces of junk that can be tracked by other satellites. An estimated 15,000 to 20,000 pieces of debris lie scatted in orbit, too small to be tracked. The ISS, however, is not completely defenceless, and can lift orbit to avoid larger objects (though it is apparent that it did not lift its orbit this time, which means it was defenceless in this case). What worries me is that now we’re so tired of polluting the Earth, we’ve started doing the same to outer space. And then Christians say God created humans. Had God created humans, He’d not have given us the power to pollute places we can’t even see.

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8 Responses to Shrapnel in Space Threatens the International Space Station

  1. juturna says:

    yea i just overlooked the headline in the paper right now but boy o boy when i read your post! phew! a flake of paint! it’s mind boggling how ignoring the most minimalistic things can cost you your life even…

    but the question is, how do we deal with space junk? couldn’t we put a huge electromagnet on the ISS ( or some other thing, per se ) which attracts all the junk in orbit and i’m sure there’d be a lot of recycle-able material there… yea and to avoid hits, maybe a mechanism could be employed to slow down the incoming debris to avoid damage to the ISS itself…

    and just wondering, why has ‘God’ been named as one of the tags? i see no connection… šŸ˜€

    • December says:

      Satellites are unmanned, so the danger is not to life, but to technology and money. And there is aggressive way to deal with space junk. Generally satellites and other space vehicles are designed to resist any damage from smaller pieces of junk, and for the larger pieces, they can lift orbit.

      And putting a large electromagnet on the ISS is way too extravagant in today’s terms. Anyway, the speeds at which these objects move renders them uncatchable, atleast considering today’s technology and economics.

      As for the ‘God’ tag, pun intended. šŸ˜€

  2. cinnamon says:

    dude what!? 6000 defunct satellites…this has gotto be kidding me! I mean have we, like completely lost it? we just leave satellites up there…as if the universe was a particular nation’s private property! I seriously did not know this. I always thought that these satellites were called back. If you employ means to send a satellite, u should employ equal means to have it back, i mean they just can’t be left up there?

    • December says:

      What they’ve done is that they’ve created a ‘dumping zone’ in space, what is known as the graveyard orbit, to which they move satellites after they’re ‘dead’. It is beyond most satellite orbits, and so I guess that’s how they justify that.

      And now they say they want man to go to Mars. God save the red planet now.

  3. cinnamon says:

    hmmm i see, actually i’m rather sorry to see. but its totally unjustified. they’ve made the universe their playground.

    yea, God save Mars…moreover just today it was in the newspaper that NASA has sent missions to space to find planets similar to Earth. God save everything, who knows they might just discover God one day and raid his house! :S šŸ˜

    • December says:

      Oh you mean the Mormon philosophy? They’re a sect of Christianity who believe that God as in the Bible is actually a man who lives on a planet in another solar system. I mean, they actually believe this.

      Maybe NASA is a Mormon group, who knows?

  4. cbullitt says:

    There used to be a site where you could see a represntation of the debris cloud in orbit. It might have been a NORAD site, but I don’t remember. It was impressive, especially considering somone had to look at that image and make enough sense of it to safely direct and warn spacecraft.

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