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Space Science

Satellite Collision Debris May Hamper Space Launch 131

Posted by timothy
from the install-cowcatchers dept.
Matt_dk writes "The debris from a recent collision involving two communications satellites could pose a serious threat for future launches of spacecraft into a geostationary orbit, a Russian scientist said on Friday. Future launches will have to be adjusted with regard to the fact that the debris [from the collision] has spread over an 800-km area and will gather at a common orbit in 5-6 years."
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Satellite Collision Debris May Hamper Space Launch

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  • by zappepcs (820751) on Saturday February 21, 2009 @08:20PM (#26945375) Journal

    Well, though you might not have thought such a thing was necessary or useful per se' I'm here to tell you that a laser based in orbit than can be used to vaporize such debris is a laser worth having. Oh well

    • Re: (Score:3, Funny)

      by jetsci (1470207)
      G.W.B., is that you sir?!
    • Why have lasers in space? It would be way cheaper, and just as effective if we just strap them onto sharks!

      • by NeverVotedBush (1041088) on Saturday February 21, 2009 @09:26PM (#26945707)
        Sharks can't fly, though, and they would have to be smart enough to aim taking into account the refractive index difference between the seawater and the air.

        Maybe if we used flying fish with frickin' lasers strapped to their heads...
        • by maxume (22995)

          The really scary sharks can fly just fine.

        • by Kagura (843695)

          Sharks can't fly, though, and they would have to be ...

          You know how I know you haven't seen a flying shark? You're still alive.

        • by toddestan (632714)

          Sharks can't fly, though, and they would have to be smart enough to aim taking into account the refractive index difference between the seawater and the air.

          Actually, they wouldn't have to worry about the refractive index difference. Since their vision and the laser both use visible light, and the light from anything they are looking at must pass through the same water-air boundry as the laser beam, all they have to do is simply point the laser at where their target appears to be in order to hit it. Even

    • by FooAtWFU (699187) on Saturday February 21, 2009 @08:34PM (#26945441) Homepage
      Unfortunately, this is not Star Trek, where we can just point some magical energy beam at something and "vaporize" it, rendering it harmless. We have to deal with Real Physics here, especially energy constraints. How much energy does do you think it takes to boil a few hundred kilograms of iron? Do you think we have anything remotely like that which we could feasibly launch into orbit? What do you think happens when it inevitably cools?
      • Re: (Score:3, Funny)

        by Anonymous Coward

        How much energy does do you think it takes to boil a few hundred kilograms of iron?

        Nothing a sufficiently large matter/anti-matter reaction couldn't generate, provided you have enough dilithium to safely regulate the reaction.

      • by John Hasler (414242) on Saturday February 21, 2009 @08:52PM (#26945527) Homepage
        Vaporizing the crap is not feasible, nor is putting extremely large lasers in orbit. Fortunately, neither is necessary. You build a very high peak-power pulse laser on the ground and use it to hit the bits of debris with femtosecond pulses that vaporize a few micrograms off each of them. The vapor acts like a rocket engine, its reaction force slightly changing the orbit. Hit each bit again every time it comes around and soon it is in a decaying orbit. Space Broom [wikipedia.org]
        • Granted, I only have high school physics on my resumé, but if you blast it from down here, you're bound to hit something that points towards the earth. That means the materials vaporized will be pushed towards earth, giving whatever you're shooting at a boost towards a higher orbit.

          Now, while we don't have any large 'nets' to catch debris with, I do believe the most effective thing to clear stuff out of orbit is the atmosphere, and atmospheric drag tends to be more effective at lower altitudes. So you'

          • by Xolotl (675282) on Sunday February 22, 2009 @03:18AM (#26947141) Journal

            if you blast it from down here, you're bound to hit something that points towards the earth. That means the materials vaporized will be pushed towards earth, giving whatever you're shooting at a boost towards a higher orbit.

            It doesn't work like that. A push directly away from the Earth will not give a 'higher' orbit (one with more angular momentum), it will change the shape of the orbit (the eccentricity). Essentially the orbit will become longer and thinner, and at a different point in the orbit it will be lower and start to brush against the atmosphere, thus invoking atmospheric drag.

            • I can't imagine it's really wise to take a disastrous situation and make it worse. How are you going to avoid thousands of bits of space debris when it all has random orbits?

              • Re: (Score:3, Informative)

                by John Hasler (414242)

                The bits of stuff already have random orbits. Since you would be tracking while zapping you would know the new orbit of your current target at least as well as you knew the old one. The orbit is not going to be changed drastically: just enough to drop the perigee down to perhaps 150 miles. The atmosphere will take it from there.

            • by Kagura (843695)

              if you blast it from down here, you're bound to hit something that points towards the earth. That means the materials vaporized will be pushed towards earth, giving whatever you're shooting at a boost towards a higher orbit.

              It doesn't work like that. A push directly away from the Earth will not give a 'higher' orbit (one with more angular momentum), it will change the shape of the orbit (the eccentricity). Essentially the orbit will become longer and thinner, and at a different point in the orbit it will be lower and start to brush against the atmosphere, thus invoking atmospheric drag.

              No, this is very, very wrong. The GP was more correct than you are. If you apply a prograde impulse (increasing orbit altitude) at point A of an orbit, then the rest of orbit will change shape and rise in altitude, with the opposite side of the orbit having the highest measured altitude. However, point A will _not_ change its altitude. Essentially, this means that applying a prograde impulse to space debris (or pushing it away from the earth) will _not_ cause part of its orbit to be lowered.

          • by Gunstick (312804)

            you can also blast against it when it's rising on the horizon (unfortunately then there's a lot more atmosphere to plough through). Then it's orbit velocity will be reduced as you are firing at an angle against it's direction of flight.

      • by bitrex (859228) on Saturday February 21, 2009 @09:09PM (#26945609)
        All you have to do is use a Higgs reactor as the power source - use a fusion reaction as a primary energy source to drive ablation plates within an inertial confinement field that then compresses yttrium arsenide into a Grand Unified Theory quark-gluon plasma, and store the radiative energy from the breaking of the supersymmetry during the cooling process in superconducting inductors. God, why do I have to spell things out for everyone.
      • by risk one (1013529)

        What do you think happens when it inevitably cools?

        It'll smack into some Russian sattelite?

      • by rtb61 (674572)

        Do it the cheapest way possible, this will be the third time I covered this very same point. Implement large scale mirror arrays on earth and reflect solar light back into orbit, the focal point of all those mirrors, many thousands of square metres of mirror can readily vaporise all the debris and the really effective part of using a distributed array is that anything above or below the focal point will only get a few mirrors worth of reflected light while those pieces at the focal can get hundreds of thou

        • by robbak (775424)

          Assuming you were being serious, by the time your carefully focused beams travel through the large and chaotic optical device we call our atmosphere, they would be so scattered there wouldn't be enough left to give you a decent tan. Or skin cancer, if you prefer.

          • by robbak (775424)

            re-reply: lenses or images focus things into an image, magnified or reduced by an amount proportionate to their focal length.

            At a few inches, the sun's image is focused to a scorching image about a millimeter across. At a few hundred kilometers, that image is going to be (at a guess, someone else can do the math) miles across. Far to low a density to do any serious damage to an orbiting item.

            • What if you made your distributed array out of those evil green lasers that pop balloons and crash airplanes?

            • by rtb61 (674572)
              Three quarters of the atmosphere's mass is within 11 km (6.8 mi; 36,000 ft) of the surface. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Earth's_atmosphere [wikipedia.org]. Bet I could readily set you on fire with 100,000 m2 of mirrors at that range, even at sea level.
              • by robbak (775424)

                No, you couldn't. I did the math.

                The image of the sun, created by a perfect paraboloid mirror with a focal length of 11 km, would be 11,000 km across.
                So, I'd be able to see your mirror, and it would even cast a discernible shadow, but as for burning - I wouldn't even be able to read by it!

        • Hmm. Now imagine if you could buy these mirrors for 20 bucks a pop and put one on your roof. Then charge rich people $100,000 an hour to control the array and play "missile command" IRL. Plus, if your cable company raises their rates again you could blow their sattelite out of orbit.

      • by fahrbot-bot (874524) on Saturday February 21, 2009 @10:06PM (#26945877)

        I'm here to tell you that a laser based in orbit than can be used to vaporize such debris is a laser worth having.

        We have to deal with Real Physics here, especially energy constraints.

        Furthermore, sharks can't live in space - duh.

        • Re: (Score:2, Funny)

          by Laser Dan (707106)

          Furthermore, sharks can't live in space - duh.

          Sharks in frikkin' spacesuits with frikkin' lasers on their heads?

      • But you don't have to vaporize the whole thing, just push it low enough that its orbit decays and it burns up. Ultimately, don't we have gravity working for us in this situation?

        • by zappepcs (820751)

          I think the most feasible method is to create a huge 'roomba' - A couple of small vehicles that can be put into orbit near the debris field, spread out a large net and _slowly_ move to scoop all the debris up before moving to a position that brings the whole kit down into the middle of the pacific or similar. It won't have to be as complex as the Mars Rovers, nor incredibly large. You should be able to get the whole thing into orbit in one launch. Basically a huge net with controllable motors on it. A back

          • The debris is spread out over a volume of millions of cubic miles and the bits are moving at relative velocities of miles per second. They will tear right through your nets unless you match velocities with each bit, which would would require enormous amounts of fuel and take centuries.

            • The debris is spread out over a volume of millions of cubic miles and the bits are moving at relative velocities of miles per second.

              Relative to what?

              The ground, yes.

              Each other? No. Tens of meters per second, at most.

              • by Muad'Dave (255648)
                You're assuming that everything at a particular altitude has the same orbital inclination. Refer to the orbits of the two satellites involved in the collision to see how similar orbital altitudes but wildly different inclinations result in very high speed collisions.
      • by WindBourne (631190)
        the last thing that you want to do is break up something about 6" around into 1" pieces. Can not track it. OTH, a laser CAN be used to slow down pieces with relatively little energy, which will take it out of orbit MUCH faster. Though to be honest, I would think that at this time, the companies and govs should instead pay to have their sats deorbited and THEN worry about the little stuff. That way, it avoids this issues.
        • by mangu (126918)

          I would think that at this time, the companies and govs should instead pay to have their sats deorbited and THEN worry about the little stuff

          They do. The problem is when one of them fails, as happened to Cosmos-2251. You cannot deorbit a satellite that doesn't respond to commands.

      • by drolli (522659)
        Everybody knows that starships, which are in orbit, crash spectacularly (not being affected by the atmosphere) into the planets surface after being hit by a laser. During they go down usually they exhibit a series of smaller fires on the outside, for which they obviously have some oxygen supply somewhere. I have seen that in hundreds of movies, so it cant be wrong. In the same way i know that cars immediately explode after hitting an obstacle and that keyboards make electrical sparks if something goes wrong
      • "Do you think we have anything remotely like that which we could feasibly launch into orbit?

        No, but please don't give these people [slashdot.org] any more marketing ideas.
    • by neBelcnU (663059)

      I'll see your laser, sir, and raise you this:
      http://katamari.namco.com/ [namco.com]

  • Duck Dodgers! Space garbageman of the 21st century!
  • Geostationairy? (Score:3, Interesting)

    by im_thatoneguy (819432) on Saturday February 21, 2009 @08:26PM (#26945411)

    Wait a second. I thought the collision was at like 300mi altitude. Now they'r saying this causes problems at Geosynchronous orbit? I thought GEO was at like 30,000 miles above the earth. Also... I didn't think the shuttle planned on traveling that high anyway.

    What am I missing?

    • Re: (Score:2, Insightful)

      by Anonymous Coward

      What am I missing?

      When they collided at those speeds the debris flew in all directions so I guess enough of it entered lower orbits to cause problems.

      Although... how it makes that much difference with all the thousands of other bits of junk out there I dont know.

      How long until we really have something like in the anime PlanetES to clean up all the junk out there? I guess it'll happen after someone gets sued for junk they left behind.

    • Re:Geostationairy? (Score:5, Informative)

      by Anonymous Coward on Saturday February 21, 2009 @08:41PM (#26945483)

      to get into geostationary you have to pass the 300 mile mark. If you were to hit anything on the way.. bad stuff!

      • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

        by Digicrat (973598)

        Precisely. If this is a problem for geo launches, then the same likely applies to future interplanetary launches (Lunar missions, Mars landers, etc.) as well.

        Of course, what we really need is a simple deflector shield to protect our ships . . .

      • If you were to hit anything on the way.. bad stuff!

        I remembered reading a story about british scientests creating an energy shield that would be able to deflect charged solar particles away from a ship, however the atricle says that these are early results that they have obtained and would be quite a ways away from creating anything viable for use on a space shuttle/ship. Now I wonder if they would be able to modify this application in some way to deflect objects bigger than charged particles. Only time will tell i guess, anywho here is the link to the arti

    • Re:Geostationairy? (Score:5, Informative)

      by John Hasler (414242) on Saturday February 21, 2009 @09:03PM (#26945573) Homepage

      > I thought the collision was at like 300mi altitude. Now they'r saying this causes
      > problems at Geosynchronous orbit?

      > What am I missing?

      The fact that in order to get from here to there one must cross the intervening space.

      > I thought GEO was at like 30,000 miles above the earth.

      Closer to 22,000.

      > I didn't think the shuttle planned on traveling that high anyway.

      Some of the wreckage was scattered into orbits that could intersect that of the Shuttle while it is on its way to Hubble.

      • Ah! I misread the summary as "Poses threat to spacecraft IN GEO.

        I see now it very clearly is only talking about the launches themselves.

        Epic Brain Fail.

  • by kbrasee (1379057) on Saturday February 21, 2009 @08:40PM (#26945471) Homepage
    It isn't that hard, people! We had this stuff 50 years ago on Star Trek.
  • All in favour of an orbital vacuum cleaner say AYE
  • satellites that nudge space junk back down in to the atmosphere so it can (hopefully) burn up upon reentry...
    • The problem with that is that any time one of those sattellites nudges a piece of debris down, it's nudging itself upwards, which consumes fuel in directional and orbit adjustments. It would also need some method of firing down and not hitting the earth, ever, or NIMBY idiots would prevent it from getting into orbit.
    • You mean, like a robot, that pushes stuff around, in space?

  • Mega Maid (Score:3, Funny)

    by theJML (911853) on Saturday February 21, 2009 @09:57PM (#26945841) Homepage

    Apparently we have a need for Mega Maid... hopefully she won't go from suck to blow.

    • Apparently we have a need for Mega Maid... hopefully she won't go from suck to blow.

      Like a Michael Bay movie?

  • This better not delay the launch of Direct Tv D-12 later this year I want the 50 more HD channles.

  • by justthisdude (779510) on Saturday February 21, 2009 @11:05PM (#26946149)
    All the cool planets sort their space debris into convenient rings using the gravitational pulls of small moons. We just need to invest in placing a few in low orbits and they will quickly destabilize anything in orbits not resonant with their own.
  • We had those on Star Trek 50 years ago too. Just figure those out, and everything will be all right.
    • by drinkypoo (153816)

      If we had reactors like they have on Star Trek, we'd probably have energy shields. We already have a technique for making large volumes of cold plasma in an efficient manner. We don't have a way to produce enough power to energize a field like that enough to disperse incoming stuff and also keep it in place via magnetic bottling (or some other technology, but that's the only thing I'm aware of that could do that sort of thing right now.)

  • This is why ASAT is so easy. You can do it, without meaning to!

  • Giant magnets. Seriously. Put a big magnet in orbit in the danger zone, have it re-enter after its gobbled up all the stray iron.

    I expect my cheque shortly.

  • I don't understand why these satellites collided in the first place. I understand NASA tracks pretty much all objects larger than a bolt in orbit. Why wasn't the collisision predicted and prevented ? The Iridium satellite was still active as I understand it, so it must have had some capability still to avoid the collision. Can someone enlighten me here ?
    • NASA doesn't have the processing power to predict possible collisions for everything orbiting the earth. A few high value objects are monitored for possible collisions (Space station). Even if they did actively monitor for all possible collisions, most of those possible collisions would be false positives, and satellites don't have extra fuel to be changing orbits for a collision that most likely won't happen.
      • It's the Air Force that does the tracking. But you are right: they don't have the resources to track all 19,000+ objects with sufficient precision to predict collisions such as this one. They watch all the stuff just closely enough to know which bits might endanger something critical like the ISS and then track that relatively small number of objects with great precision. I don't know if the limitation is due to the radar equipment or a lack of processing power.

    • Why wasn't the collision predicted and prevented ?

      It was predicted, but not with the required accuracy. The problem is that inactive satellites, like the Cosmos, can only be tracked by radar, and radar is not precise enough. From the prediction, these satellites would pass at 137 meters from each other, the probability of a collision was very small.

      Iridium has over 60 satellites in orbit, they receive hundreds of warnings each day from NORAD about possible encounters, the prediction for this one wasn't clos

  • Just call Adam Quark.

    ( For you kids - http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Quark_(TV_series) [wikipedia.org] )

  • 800 Km area? (Score:2, Interesting)

    by stoicio (710327)

    There appears to be some 2 dimensional thinking going on here.
    The statement '8 Km area' would lead one to believe that the debris has
    spread out over a flat plane.

    Obviously, when things collide in space, there is more of a
    cloud of debris than a pool table of debris.

    What is th actual **VOLUME** and 3 dimensional scale of the problem
    and where is it located in 3 dimensional space?

    The debris is also not static. It will continue to move and expand
    in orbit.

    • I believe that they mean that the cloud of stuff has an 800 km^2 collision cross-section. For planning purposes how long the cloud is is much less important than how fat it is.

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