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Satellite Debris Forces ISS Crew Into Rescue Craft 171

Posted by timothy
from the plenty-of-mint-gum dept.
Muad'Dave writes "CNN is reporting that the crew of the International Space Station was forced to take refuge from a possible collision of the ISS with a piece of space debris Thursday. From the article: 'Floating debris from a satellite forced the crew of the international space station to retreat to a safety capsule Thursday, according to a NASA news release. .. The debris was too close for the space station to move out of the way, so the station's three crew members were temporarily evacuated to a the station's Soyuz TMA-13 capsule, NASA said.'" Update: 03/12 18:42 GMT by T : The original story incorrectly said the ISS had 18 crew members. Luckily for the three in the Soyuz, that was a mistake.
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Satellite Debris Forces ISS Crew Into Rescue Craft

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  • Lasers (Score:3, Funny)

    by Anonymous Coward on Thursday March 12, 2009 @01:53PM (#27169935)
    This is just another reason to invest in laser defenses. Preferably sharks with fricken' lasers on their heads.
  • by Ash-Fox (726320) on Thursday March 12, 2009 @01:55PM (#27169971)

    I swear, that Soyuz module will never die, considering how old it is.

    • by Thelasko (1196535)
      When I first heard about this, all I could think was, "what happens if the space debris hits the Soyuz?"
      • Cleaning up all the junk in orbit suddenly becomes an "action item". But the Soyuz is a much smaller, much sturdier target.

        • by gnick (1211984)

          I'd like to just see them stop creating so much space debris - I'm still pretty pissed over the Chinese blowing up their sat and leaving junk in a useful orbit...

          OK - The next person to kick a toaster out the airlock gets a month in the brig. Sorry, that's the way it has to be.

          • I'd like to just see them stop creating so much space debris - I'm still pretty pissed over the Chinese blowing up their sat and leaving junk in a useful orbit...

            Perhaps it was done to hamper the space efforts of other countries.

      • Re: (Score:3, Informative)

        by Anonymous Coward

        If it hits the Soyuz, you just exit the module and seal the airlock. On the other hand, if you're on the far side of the station and it puts a hole in that much larger target, you're in a somewhat more precarious predicament.

        Additionally, as the Soyuz is intended to return to earth, with all the stresses and such involved in that, it can probably withstand an impact better than the much less robust station.

        • by Chyeld (713439) <chyeld AT gmail DOT com> on Thursday March 12, 2009 @03:07PM (#27171187)

          Sturdy or not, objects hitting you while going a couple of thousand miles per hour (relative to your own speed) tend to leave a lasting (if not final) impression.

        • by shadowbearer (554144) on Thursday March 12, 2009 @03:51PM (#27171923) Homepage Journal

            According to an article I just read*, that piece of junk was estimated to be about five inches in diameter and traveling at a relative velocity (to the ISS) of about 22,000 mph. That's almost ten kilometers a second**.

            If that had hit the Soyuz, it would have went in one side and out the other likely without even slowing down much, vaporizing a significant chunk of the hull - think white-hot metal shrapnel and shredded astronauts.

            Look at what happens to an armored tank when a depleted uranium shell hits it at a much slower velocity. At the velocities we're talking about here, even a pebble can cause a lot of destruction; a five inch piece of debris likely weighing at least a kg has an effect like a large artillery shell. Remember the flake of paint that put an inch diameter pit into the shuttle's windshield all those years ago?

            The only effective armor against something like this is a meter or so of rock.

          * http://www.usatoday.com/tech/science/space/2009-03-12-space-station_N.htm [usatoday.com]

          **Google: 22000 mph in meters per second = 9834.88 meters per second.

          SB

          • Re: (Score:3, Informative)

            by CXI (46706)
            I believe the relative velocity was 2,300mph, not that it would matter much either way if it hit.
    • by geekoid (135745)

      Apparently by your criteria I will never die because I age~

      I like that line of thinking.

    • Re: (Score:3, Informative)

      by DerekLyons (302214)

      I swear, that Soyuz module will never die, considering how old it is.

      Yeah, for a 2002 model it's doing pretty good isn't it? (If you disregard the multiple times it has suffered systems failure on re-entry.)

      Seriously - though people refer to the craft as generically as 'Soyuz', that is like referring to all Ford Thunderbird's as a 'Thunderbird' without regards to model year. The current mark of Soyuz is the Soyuz-TMA, which had it's first flight in 2002 and has only flown 12 complete missions with

  • by sunking2 (521698) on Thursday March 12, 2009 @01:57PM (#27170015)
    18 crew memebers? Are they shooting a Girls Gone Wild video up there or something?
  • 18 Crew? (Score:4, Insightful)

    by Obasan (28761) on Thursday March 12, 2009 @01:58PM (#27170029)

    ... or Expedition 18?

  • 18 crew members? What, are they having some kind of party up there? Did somebody drop in unannounced?
  • by GottMitUns (1012191) on Thursday March 12, 2009 @01:59PM (#27170063)
    There are 3 individuals on board: 2 Americans and 1 Russian.
  • by JoshuaZ (1134087) on Thursday March 12, 2009 @02:01PM (#27170095) Homepage
    The current expedition is Expedition 18. See http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Expedition_18 [wikipedia.org] . This likely got garbled at some point from something like "Expedition 18 Crew" to "18 crew."
  • TMA-13? (Score:3, Funny)

    by Tibor the Hun (143056) on Thursday March 12, 2009 @02:01PM (#27170101)

    WTF? Are they hauling them back from Jupiter now?

  • by djupedal (584558) on Thursday March 12, 2009 @02:12PM (#27170269)

    .... slashdope editors were hit in the head with falling space debris today, further complicating their inability to detect sloppy facts.

    This has not impacted their availability and readers are cautioned to continue questioning anything masquerading as fact.

    • I canno' change the laws o' slashdot... I mean, physics!

    • Re: (Score:3, Funny)

      by Sleepy (4551)

      ... There goes your ability to EVER moderate posts again... ;-)

      • by Sleepy (4551)

        Why was this modded funny? I'm pretty sure I -am- blacklisted from moderation. Not that U can't laugh aHeh. =:-O

        (If there's an actual admin who sees this: after 13 years using slashdot.org and karma="50", I don't think I've been picked for moderation since before XP came out. Mostly I'm curious... either there's bias in the selection, or I offended someone..)

    • by djupedal (584558)

      > "Update: 03/12 18:42 GMT by T [monkey.org] : The original story incorrectly said the ISS had 18 crew members. Luckily for the three in the Soyuz, that was a mistake."

      Hey, T [monkey.org], the three already in the Soyuz would be protected, right? Regardless of how many more there may or may not have been... They don't need luck.

      Makes no sense ya mah'rune.

  • Now is the time for private investors to step forward with solutions. For example a small craft to grab and safely drop items (lower their speeds at the right time ) could take down items that are 30 CM and bigger. Perhaps, system for taking down whole sats. Keep in mind that working sats have to maneuver around them, which is a lose in energy. No doubt countries or even insurance companies would pay for this.
    • Re: (Score:3, Interesting)

      by geekoid (135745)

      What if you used an ion drive and a fuel system for quick maneuvering. Maybe soemthing that can dock with the Space Station for refueling?

      • Could also do the cable idea. That would allow you to speed up/slow down so that you move in altitudes. Then use small ion drive (or even draco thrusters) to manuever around. Ideally, a company would build a larger system that can hook up to whole sats and de-orbit them, without having to go down themselves. Then use that as a tug to move other systems around including hooking up to a smaller system that is designed to capture or slow down increasingly smaller parts. As far as paying for it, simply take an
    • by david.given (6740) <dg@co w l a r k . c om> on Thursday March 12, 2009 @02:42PM (#27170811) Homepage Journal

      For example a small craft to grab and safely drop items (lower their speeds at the right time ) could take down items that are 30 CM and bigger.

      Harder than you'd think. To deorbit a fragment like this you need to:

      1. Change your orbit to match that of the fragment
      2. Rendezvous with fragment, then grab it
      3. Change your orbit to intersect the atmosphere, then let go of the fragment
      4. Change your orbit so that you don't deorbit

      So that's three major orbital manoeuvres, per fragment. And that sort of stuff is really expensive: in order to move from a circular orbit around the equator to a circular orbit around the pole, you need twice the delta-V that you used to get into orbit in the first place!

      So it would probably be cheaper to use a single disposable vehicle that you launch to a specific debris cloud, and then it collects as much crap as it can and then deorbits. But even that's going to be a major project --- and much of the debris up there right now is on the order of paint flecks, which are damn hard to pick up (or even find).

      So this sort of thing isn't nearly as simple as it first sounds...

      • Odd.
        I would have done it radically different for the items that I mentioned (10 cm's up to a set size).
        1. Change your orbit to match that of the fragment
        2. Rendezvous with fragment, then grab it
        3. Then kick it out the back, with a greatly reduced speed (perhaps spring loaded? or behind an ion drive?), allowing gravity to pull it down.

        Of course, I was picking particular sizes for a reason.

        When it is a bigger systems, such as a Sat, then it might be nice to put a small disposable system together.
        Finally, whe

      • Re: (Score:3, Informative)

        by mhall119 (1035984)

        So that's three major orbital manoeuvres, per fragment.

        You make it too complicated. You don't have to pick up the fragment, move yourself, then drop the fragment. You just have to exchange velocity with the fragment during a very brief interaction, flinging you every-so-slightly outside your orbit,and flinging it every-so-slightly inside it's orbit. Gravity takes care of the rest.

        much of the debris up there right now is on the order of paint flecks, which are damn hard to pick up (or even find).

        Again, too complicated. What you need is something large, light weight, and sticky. A simple cylinder filled with an aero-gel just needs to fly through the debris cloud, letting t

        • A simple cylinder filled with an aero-gel just needs to fly through the debris cloud,

          An enormous cylinder filled with aero-gel ... (or sharks or lawyers or whatever)

          You're neglecting how mind bogglety big space is. Don't think debris cloud, think "large areas of volume with a few tiny little bits of dangerous, fast moving matter". It's not like you can see the debris from afar. No "on deck there! There be debris!". No space Roombas.

          • by geekoid (135745)

            Stop it.

            We know space is big.
            Actually, the poster know it better then you, becasue by comparison, any container of aero-gel we make will be small.

            We coudl sue many large containers of areo-gel.
            It doesn't make you look smart and you are not helping.

            And how fast it's moving only matter in comparison to how fast the aero-gel is moving.

            The poster idea is very smart, and it seems workable. In fact, something like that would make a good anti satellite weapon. Instead of blowing it up, cover it with an aero-gel cl

        • Re: (Score:3, Informative)

          by david.given (6740)

          You make it too complicated. You don't have to pick up the fragment, move yourself, then drop the fragment. You just have to exchange velocity with the fragment during a very brief interaction, flinging you every-so-slightly outside your orbit,and flinging it every-so-slightly inside it's orbit. Gravity takes care of the rest.

          Unfortunately all gravity is going to take care off is steering both objects around the earth in perfectly normal orbits. Remember, there's no such thing as an unstable orbit (excluding certain complicated interactions with other bodies) --- all orbits are stable unless they hit something (like the atmosphere). Any debris low enough to be easy to deorbit is most likely going to do so soon of its own accord anyway. To deorbit the rest, you're going to have to change its velocity by a lot. Otherwise you achie

        • Except that these debris clouds are often kilometers in diameter, and aerogel is expensive. It runs about $5 per square foot just for the relatively thin stuff used to insulate jackets or refrigerators. One would have to use something considerably thicker to stop objects larger than dust particles moving at thousands of miles per hour relative to your garbage collector.

          Also, a simple cylinder would not suffice. You'd have to have a disk of the stuff, probably at least half a km or so in diam

      • For example a small craft to grab and safely drop items (lower their speeds at the right time ) could take down items that are 30 CM and bigger.

        Harder than you'd think. To deorbit a fragment like this you need to:

        1. Change your orbit to match that of the fragment
        2. Rendezvous with fragment, then grab it
        3. Change your orbit to intersect the atmosphere, then let go of the fragment
        4. Change your orbit so that you don't deorbit

        So that's three major orbital manoeuvres, per fragment. And that sort of stuff is really expensive: in order to move from a circular orbit around the equator to a circular orbit around the pole, you need twice the delta-V that you used to get into orbit in the first place!

        So it would probably be cheaper to use a single disposable vehicle that you launch to a specific debris cloud, and then it collects as much crap as it can and then deorbits. But even that's going to be a major project --- and much of the debris up there right now is on the order of paint flecks, which are damn hard to pick up (or even find).

        So this sort of thing isn't nearly as simple as it first sounds...

        All new satellites need passive deorbiting features. I read a journal article a couple years ago which stated that a few pounds of very thin, very long metal cable that would release and trail out behind a satellite for something like many hundreds of meters would produce enough drag to take down things in low Earth orbit in the few months to few years time frame.

    • by Sleepy (4551)

      How about just opening the shuttle windows, and firing on the debris with a BB gun?

      Works against those pesky kids on my lawn...

      • Ever wonder where all those dings on your truck and house windows are coming from? Not from the semi's driving in your front yard. Let a kid know that you have a BB Gun and are not afraid to use it, and they will be happy to show you theirs.
  • Irony (Score:4, Insightful)

    by diablovision (83618) on Thursday March 12, 2009 @02:19PM (#27170417)

    What would be ironic is if the space junk hit the Soyuz capsule when they were in it. Probably not the best strategy to put all the eggs in one basket in that case.

  • by NoNeeeed (157503) <slashNO@SPAMpaulleader.co.uk> on Thursday March 12, 2009 @02:24PM (#27170521) Homepage

    At some point all those agencies (government and private) who have put that junk up there are going to have to get together and find a solution. That includes all the private sat operators who have left stuff up there as well as the national space agencies.

    At the moment everyone seems to be saying, "well, it's not *all* my mess, so I'm not cleaning it up". At some point this is going to start impacting (literally) everyone involved with space. We've already lost a few satellites, how many more do we need to lose before people get off their arses and find a proper solution.

    You could probably work out the approximate proportions of the total problem were caused by each agency/company, so divide the bill up accordingly.

    Of course, anyone who has watched engineers divide up the bill in a restaurant will know that probably isn't as easy as it sounds...

  • Debris Details (Score:5, Informative)

    by Muad'Dave (255648) on Thursday March 12, 2009 @02:25PM (#27170533) Homepage
    From Space.com [space.com]:

    The wayward satellite motor part came from an outdated PAM-D rocket engine that was once used to boost a satellite from low-Earth orbit a few hundred miles above Earth out to a geosynchronous position about 22,300 miles (36,000 km) above the planet. The debris was small, just 1/3 of an inch long, and was flying at about 19,800 mph, NASA officials said. The space station orbits the Earth at about 17,500 mph.

    Here's a picture [wikipedia.org] of a PAM-D motor.

    • by afabbro (33948)

      The debris was small, just 1/3 of an inch long, and was flying at about 19,800 mph, NASA officials said. The space station orbits the Earth at about 17,500 mph.

      That's nothing. I'm moving through space [enchantedlearning.com] at 64,800mph and I'm just sitting here at my desk!

    • Interesting; the size that space.com quotes seems too small - from what I've read the minimum size of debris they can track in LEO is about ten cm.

      As I noted in another post USA Today's article puts the size at about five inches, which seems more plausible.

      The size difference may not seem important to some, but it's a pretty big difference at those speeds, the difference between a (likely patchable) hole in the ISS and probable complete destruction of a module.

      SB

  • Who is to blame? (Score:5, Insightful)

    by Dripdry (1062282) on Thursday March 12, 2009 @02:27PM (#27170567) Journal

    Who is to blame as this happens more often? Is there going to be a tracking mechanism that shows exactly whose debris causes damage to a craft?
    It seems to me that if countries are going to be so irresponsible as to not decommission their craft and satellites correctly they ought to either clean it up or pay a very hefty fine to reimburse the loss of a country's hard-earned space mission.

    For instance, if China treats space the way they treat many other things (ie little or no regard for its preservation, pardon the sweeping statement) then what recourse will other countries have? If they have a project which has cost a nation billions of dollars and a small piece of shrapnel knocks out the whole damn thing, what happens next?

    I'm sure someone will get paid big bucks to make a solution, but it sure sounds like space debris is quickly becoming a problem. Maybe it's just coincidence, though.

    • For instance, if China treats space the way they treat many other things (ie little or no regard for its preservation, pardon the sweeping statement) then what recourse will other countries have?

      It's particularly difficult to pardon the hypocrisy your sweeping statement if, as I suspect, you happen to be in North America.

      • by Zerth (26112)

        What do you have against Mexicans? It's not like AEXA is putting up a whole lot of rockets. Or actually even doing a lot of existing.

      • by Sleepy (4551)

        It's good to remind America not to get on it's high horse about this (*ahem* Mountain removal, and the blind eye the US media turns to it...).

        On the other hand, we didn't sink all our oldest culture under 3 Gorges Dam, and we don't deliberately put melamine poison onto food, toys, and baby formula. Weak as our FDA is, they check on these things...

        • by AtariKee (455870)
          (*ahem* Mountain removal, and the blind eye the US media turns to it...)

          Jim Hightower would be proud :)
      • by Dripdry (1062282)

        Hypocrisy or not, I was looking for an informed discussion as opposed to culture wars or finger-pointing.

        And why is it particularly difficult to pardon? Have you conflated what my country/government does with my actions? Why am I suddenly the Supreme Envoy of The United States? I am quite tired of the rest of the world rabbiting on about the USA's hypocrisy while they themselves commit similar acts.

        I do my tiny part to correct the kinds of missteps The States make but one person (most people) can only do so

        • I was looking for an informed discussion as opposed to culture wars or finger-pointing

          So you started your informed discussion with "no culture war or finger-pointing" by making a sweeping statement about 1.5 billion people... I'm no supporter of the Chinese government, but I'm no supporter of sanctimony either.

          Go to your local dumpsite (do you know where it is?) and tell me how North American (including Canadian) consumerism is demonstrating its respect for the environment. Can you drink any of the water wi

      • by afabbro (33948)

        For instance, if China treats space the way they treat many other things (ie little or no regard for its preservation, pardon the sweeping statement) then what recourse will other countries have?

        It's particularly difficult to pardon the hypocrisy your sweeping statement if, as I suspect, you happen to be in North America.

        I'll take the environmental standards and pollution levels in the USA over China's any day of the week.

        • Have you been to your local dumpsite? Imagine if there were 1.5 billion Americans (and Canadians). How would North American consumption patterns and "environmental standards" really compare?

    • they ought to either clean it up or pay a very hefty fine to reimburse the loss of a country's hard-earned space mission.

      Yeah, those other countries will be eager to pay you whatever you tell them...right. It took decades to get any sort of compensation out of the Soviet Union after one of their failed satellites contaminated large swaths of northern Canada with radioactive debris. The United States was fined $400 for littering when parts of Skylab came down in rural Australia (a fine which remains unpaid to this day). The response from most countries would probably be something on the lines of "f*** off", albeit in more poli

    • I'm sure someone will get paid big bucks to make a solution, but it sure sounds like space debris is quickly becoming a problem. Maybe it's just coincidence, though.

      Just clean it up with water [wsj.com]. What could be easier?

  • Note The Source (Score:3, Interesting)

    by DynaSoar (714234) on Thursday March 12, 2009 @02:37PM (#27170731) Journal

    The debris wasn't from a smashed satellite, either from collision with another or blasted by a missile. It was their own trash, "a piece of a satellite rocket motor left behind by an earlier space shuttle mission". The chances of something from an entirely different orbit impacting a craft are still infinitesimal. To quote the philosopher Adams "Space is big. Really big. You wouldn't believe how mind-boggling big it is." Compare to broken junk floating around even near Earth orbit is that big.

    • Re:Note The Source (Score:4, Interesting)

      by rlseaman (1420667) on Thursday March 12, 2009 @03:57PM (#27172007)

      The chances of something from an entirely different orbit impacting a craft are still infinitesimal.

      Much more likely than infinitesimal. As someone else commented, this has already happened. You must not have been watching the news lately.

      The odds are either identically zero if the orbits do not intersect, or are small but significant if they do intersect. Orbits are not static and basically are never perfect closed ellipses, so there is a fair amount of fuzziness about whether two close orbits do or do not intersect. And, of course, every pair of orbits (about the same primary) cross twice on opposite sides of the planet - the two questions to ask are 1) whether they cross at the same altitude, and 2) whether the two objects are at the crossing at the same time.

      Since an object in LEO completes about 15 orbits per day and each orbit crosses ALL others twice per orbit, there are many opportunities daily for collision. Most close passes are quite distant. Even if the two objects are near the particular crossing point the altitude may differ. Do the math, however, and you will find that there are several passages of two large objects within a few kilometers every single day. The odds of an actual collision then just scale as the volumes of the spacecraft divided by the volume of a unit cube. Wait long enough and they are guaranteed to collide.

      All else being equal, the odds are about even that two large objects (spacecraft sized or so) will collide once per decade. There are hundreds of such orbiting objects, of course, so the odds for a specific satellite are something like once per a few millennia - for a collision with a similarly sized object. The odds are correspondingly larger for a collision between a spacecraft and the much more numerous pieces of small orbital debris.

  • ...so let's do it right the first few times:

    1. Send up a net to catch the big stuff. The size of the net and opening determines how many nets we send up. throw the net at Earth. Stuff burns up. The final net will probably more like mesh. On to step 2.

    2. Send up a disk of Aerogel. We did this on a smaller scale [spaceref.com] to capture comet debris. We don't need to get this one back, it can burn up when we throw this at Earth also. But if it doesn't burn, just aim it at the Pacific. Or Russia, some if it is their

"Only the hypocrite is really rotten to the core." -- Hannah Arendt.

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