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ISS Space

Speeding Object Makes Small Hole In the ISS Solar Array 119

Posted by Soulskill
from the oh-right,-great-peril dept.
New submitter cute_orc writes "The International Space Station has been hit by a small object. Chris Hadfield, an astronaut currently on the ISS, described it in his Twitter feed as 'a small stone from the universe.' He also said he was glad it didn't hit the hull. Jim Scotti, a planetary scientist from the University of Arizona, thinks the object may have had a different origin: 'It's unlikely this was caused by a meteor; more likely a piece of man-made space debris in low Earth orbit.'"
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Speeding Object Makes Small Hole In the ISS Solar Array

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  • by Rideak (180158) on Tuesday April 30, 2013 @01:49PM (#43593293) Homepage

    I wonder if our radar tech is advanced enough to be able to see these small projectiles in time to intercept them.

    • by i kan reed (749298) on Tuesday April 30, 2013 @01:56PM (#43593365) Homepage Journal

      Sort of?
      We have a project to identify and track all the space-junk we can, but the library is far from complete. Once we know where one is and how fast it's going, it doesn't deviate much from that.

      We make a practice of avoid the junk we know about. Intercepting it, on the other hand, is a fools errand. You're talking about shooting a bullet down with a gun. Hypothetically: sure, but in reality, it's not gonna happen.

      • by sosume (680416)

        Send in the drones!

      • by Rideak (180158)

        What about laser weapons? http://usnews.nbcnews.com/_news/2013/04/08/17658147-navy-unveils-powerful-ship-mounted-laser-weapon?lite

        Maybe it's possible to vaporize the smaller projectiles when there isn't enough time to dodge them.

        • by Anonymous Coward

          What about laser weapons?

          That doesn't make hitting them any easier. Plus, those lasers are massive and required a huge amount of power. You're not going to run them off solar cells!

        • Only if they're attached to frickin sharks.
        • What exactly makes you think the vaporized chunks aren't capable of doing similar levels of damage? When you're going 10-20 times the speed of sound, it isn't the rigidness of the body that does damage, but the sheer kinetic energy.

          Again, the bullet analogy applies. Can you focus a laser pointer on a bullet before it hits you? Your only real hope is to get the target an entire orbit before it reaches you.

          • by Rideak (180158)

            Well there is a very small amount of atmosphere at the orbit the ISS has, Breaking a projectile up into infinitely small bits would increase the surface area and (admittedly small) drag. Maybe just dispersing them enough that they wouldn't cause any damage.

            Another idea would be to heat up one side of the projectile which could vaporize small amounts of the material giving it some thrust. That thrust could push them out of the way.

          • by wagnerrp (1305589)
            When you vaporize it, it's not going to remain a solid chunk of gas. It will rapidly expand out to local atmospheric pressure. The vast majority of it will blow past you harmlessly on either side. Only a small amount of the matter will actually impact, and that which does impact will be spread out over a lengthened duration.
            • It is going to remain a solid chunk of gas for a hefty distance if it travels fast enough. If it expands at 5m/s but travels at 5 km/s, it's still going to impact pretty heavily after traveling 1 km, possibly doing a lot more damage than if it were to remain a rock.

              • by wagnerrp (1305589)
                Ok. I was assuming one would vaporize it at several tens of kilometers (and several seconds) out.
                • If it's the size of a pea, it's pretty unlikely to accurate detect, assess and fire upon. If it's an order of magnitude bigger, it's useless to even try shooting it, you'd most likely break it apart and transform one large dangerous object into many smaller dangerous objects.

              • by imsabbel (611519)

                Sorry, but gas molecules are WAAAAAY faster. At temperatures hot enough to vaporize the crap, it will be in the km/s range.

        • by Lightsider01 (2174720) on Tuesday April 30, 2013 @02:34PM (#43593775)
          Vaporizing them isn't going to help much and it takes too much energy. It also has the risk of generating *more* space junk, just smaller. However, there is a proposal to use lasers against the growing cloud of space junk in orbit. This plan, however, isn't to vaporize them. The plan is to use the small momentum generated by photons to cause the junk to deorbit. http://www.wired.co.uk/news/archive/2013-04/29/laser-space-junk [wired.co.uk]
      • by tlhIngan (30335) <.slashdot. .at. .worf.net.> on Tuesday April 30, 2013 @03:07PM (#43594149)

        Sort of?
        We have a project to identify and track all the space-junk we can, but the library is far from complete. Once we know where one is and how fast it's going, it doesn't deviate much from that.

        We make a practice of avoid the junk we know about. Intercepting it, on the other hand, is a fools errand. You're talking about shooting a bullet down with a gun. Hypothetically: sure, but in reality, it's not gonna happen.

        Only above a certain size (1cm or so?), and yes, they do deviate because they hit things while they orbit.

        Even worse is that, you cannot intercept them because you risk making the problem worse - one large piece of debris is easier to deal with than many smaller pieces, and the smaller pieces often form clouds of debris which can cover a larger area, which create more debris as they hit more stuff.

        There is a critical point where we would effectively be trapped because the space debris would cause chain reactions which spray off more debris, which hit off more stuff and make more debris, etc. Like an uncontrolled nuclear reaction.

        The only way to clean it up is to deorbit it, and orbital mechanics say to do that, you can only decelerate it (your orbit altitude is determined by your speed - go faster, you go higher. Go slower, you go lower)

        • How about releasing large clouds of gas in front of a cloud of debris? Wouldn't that deaccelerate it, and then dissipate?

      • by Luckyo (1726890)

        With bullet often having speeds and in some cases mass orders of magnitude greater then actual bullets. And in situation where anything you shoot will cause recoil significant enough to force you to counter-fire to offset it.

      • Once we know where one is and how fast it's going, it doesn't deviate much from that.

        On the contrary, stuff in LEO wanders all over the place (relatively speaking) - not only is the Earth's gravitational field "lumpy", there's atmospheric drag a surprising distance out (and it varies over time), there's light pressure and the solar wind too... That's why it's such a big damn job to keep track of the stuff, and why they sometimes have to move the station's orbit unexpectedly.

      • by krept (697623)
        We need some kind of wedge.
      • Sort of?
        We have a project to identify and track all the space-junk we can, but the library is far from complete. Once we know where one is and how fast it's going, it doesn't deviate much from that.

        We make a practice of avoid the junk we know about. Intercepting it, on the other hand, is a fools errand. You're talking about shooting a bullet down with a gun. Hypothetically: sure, but in reality, it's not gonna happen.

        We have gotten quite good at hitting things moving at 3000 mph (anti-sat/anti-ballistic missile). And for this application you don't even have to hit it, just know where it's going to be. Technically it's challenging, but certainly doable. The prohibitive part is the cost of launching several very heavy things. Maybe a laser type device for very small pieces?

      • by drinkypoo (153816)

        Intercepting it, on the other hand, is a fools errand. You're talking about shooting a bullet down with a gun. Hypothetically: sure, but in reality, it's not gonna happen.

        You would be correct if you couldn't intercept space junk with a laser. If you shoot it on the leading side, it'll slow down and deorbit. It's nothing like shooting a bullet down with a gun. It's like trying to spot an asteroid with a laser, something we can do already. We do need to get a whole lot better at it, though.

    • Intercepting "these small projectiles" is not a good idea since they are travelling at orbital velocities (25000km per hour).

      Picking these objects up on radar and performing an avoidance maneuver is what the ISS has traditionally done when faced with an inevitable intercept. If the maneuver cannot be performed in time the astronauts and cosmonauts hunker down in the Soyuz capsules in case they need to make a "speedy" departure from the station.

      • by Immerman (2627577) on Tuesday April 30, 2013 @02:16PM (#43593581)

        Actually I believe current mapping is of objects down to a sizable fraction of a meter - the stuff that would likely cripple or destroy a spacecraft on impact no matter where it hit. For smaller stuff - pebbles, nuts and bolts, etc. that will still easily punch a hole through anything it hits we don't have the infrastructure in place to do a meaningful orbital mapping and must reply on luck and kinetic shielding - often many, many layers of material that can get "blown off" on impact, dissipating projectile energy before it reaches the inner hull (I don't know if the ISS uses that technique or not)

      • by kimvette (919543) on Tuesday April 30, 2013 @03:35PM (#43594487) Homepage Journal

        > Intercepting "these small projectiles" is not a good idea since they are travelling at orbital velocities (25000km per hour).

        Their speed relative to Earth has no bearing on it; what matters is the relative speed between the random object and the object you wish to protect, just as the fact that we revolve around the sun at 30 km/s has zero impact ;) on how long it takes you to drive to work (or hop on your bike for cheetos and mountain dew for those who cannot relate because they still live in mommy's basement ;)). If they could launch an interceptor from the protected vehicle to divert or simply absorb kinetic energy and slow it to a harmless relative velocity, then it would be a success - whether or not more junk is created. I think protecting lives against an immediate threat in that situation is more important than the concern of additional junk.

        • Most stuff in the same orbit altitude should be travelling at roughly the same speed. Therefore this would be something in a wildly eccentric or kilted orbit, or retrograde.

      • I wonder if you could launch a giant tank of expanding foam, or a similar but more space-friendly material, that slowly decomposes. Cheap enough to orbit a swarm of foamballs. Small bits of space junk would get lodged inside or at least slowed down in the process or punching a hole. Then the foamball, having a huge size and very little mass, will be slowed by atmospheric drag and fall out of orbit after a few years. Any fragments that break off and get left behind will slowly decompose under the influence o

    • <quote><p>I wonder if our radar tech is advanced enough to be able to see these small projectiles in time to intercept them.</p></quote>

      If "your radar tech" is as good as the Phanlanx CIWS the answer is no. If "your radar tech" is as good as the Goalkeeper CIWS they might stand a chance.
    • by asmkm22 (1902712)

      A better question is what could do once we detect them. Those things travel quite fast, and something tells me the ISS isn't nimble enough to start dodging small rocks in space.

      • This is space. If you know even an hour in advance, and can manage a delta-V of even one-tenth of a meter per second, you can shift your position by 1.8KM. There's no friction, so a gentle nudge will carry you a long way. The important part is to know in advance - there are programs to track space junk, but spotting pebbles, screws and paint-flecks is a bit much for even the best radar.

        • Oh, did the calculation wrong. Not 1.8KM, but only 0.36KM. Which is still more than enough to easily dodge any piece of space junk. Even if the thrusters are off, I suspect you could get enough delta-V by having someone suit up and hammer-throw refuse out the airlock.

        • by asmkm22 (1902712)

          Something tells me we're not going to have an hour of advanced notice on a small baseball-sized object traveling 25,000 mph towards us.

    • Radar won't see anything smaller than its own wavelength, but with present technology, objects that small are still dangerous.

    • It may not have been a man made object.
      Perhaps they may have identified it as a space rock if they knew when it hit and what angle the arrays were in at the time. I'm almost sure the power systems would have detected the change in the power caused by the impact. The arrays were built to expect impacts and remain functional, up to a certain point. It would take an awful lot to significantly effect an array.

  • by Anonymous Coward
    This is basically a "SOMETHING HAPPENED! But that's all we know" story. You'll get just as much reading this summary.
  • Space is scary and dangerous. I do wonder how fast this projectile was probably going though? I'd assume the hull is pretty thick, but how fast would a projectile have to go to cut through it?
    • by Immerman (2627577)

      LEO velocities are in the 7-8km/s range, which is around 17,000 mph, or around mach 20. There's not much that will stop something at those velocities - in fact that's why the lunar lander was covered in essentially dozens of layers of aluminum foil - so the energy from any impact would "explode" the outer layers and not penetrate the inner hull.

    • by Baloroth (2370816)

      Orbital speed is ~7.7 km/s at that altitude, so unless it is traveling in the same direction they are, the most probable speed was somewhere upwards of 7 km/s (if it was orbiting in the other direction, 15km/s). Enough to put a hole in just about anything. That's assuming it was in orbit, if it was a meteor and not manmade, it could have been going almost any speed (but probably still a few km/s at a minimum).

    • The hull is most likely not that thick. It's only there to keep the air pressure high enough that the astronauts can breathe it and be sturdy enough that they don't poke their fingers through it by accident.

      Also, a thicker hull wouldn't protect them from space junk etc. The junk is traveling at orbital velocity (otherwise it wouldn't be in orbit) so any impact is likely to penetrate the hull, no matter the thickness.

      Every kg to space is expensive, so hull thickness most likely isn't a top priority.

      • by kimvette (919543)

        > The hull is most likely not that thick.

        Spacecraft hulls (aside from reentry vehicles and the space shuttle) has been compared to foil. It's not that thin, but I'd guess based on descriptions (and without googling) that it would be approximately the same as a soda pop can.

        • A quick search returns results from greater than 4 mm, down to 1.27 mm plus a multilayer coating of insulation plus ballistic fabric.
    • by TWiTfan (2887093)

      What was space like, dad?

      Cold, empty, and full of radiation.

    • by Bengie (1121981)

      Space is scary and dangerous.

      I was going to say that I love my atmosphere because it makes me feel all cozy and warm, but I'm supposed to get snow this week.. In May.

  • by SJHillman (1966756) on Tuesday April 30, 2013 @02:03PM (#43593435)

    "A small stone from the universe"

    Not to be confused the all of the rocks being thrown at us from outside of the Universe.

  • "Chris Hadfield, an astronaut currently on the ISS, described it in his Twitter feed as 'a small stone from the universe.'"

    "Jim Scotti, a planetary scientist from the University of Arizona, thinks the object may have had a different origin:"

    really? do tell
  • Lucky this wasn't a bolt through the window...

    • Lucky this wasn't a bolt through the window...

      Imagine if it were? Imagine further that space forensic scientists identified the platform of origin of said bolt. There's not currently any international liability laws for space trash, but there should be, IMO... Fine whoever does blatantly harmful things like when China shot an orbiting satellite. Although, without a planet-wide currency I wonder how well fines would work on national scales? Those fined would just reduce the national debt owed to them?

      Space junk is, IMO, one of the most serious p

  • What's more surprising is that is isn't a normal occurence given the amount of crap floating around up there.
    http://earthobservatory.nasa.gov/IOTD/view.php?id=40173 [nasa.gov]

  • People keep talking about using lasers to zap these particles or sending up drones to collect them, both of which are highly unfeasible.

    However, what if, and I'm just spitballing here, what if instead of a laser you use a reflective surface to bounce the photons of light from the sun into the path of these particles and let this tiny push alter the course lower?

    You wouldn't need to be precise as the reflected light would cut a large swath and having the particle pass through the light at speed wouldn't be a

    • by MozeeToby (1163751) on Tuesday April 30, 2013 @02:44PM (#43593923)

      A laser isn't as unfeasible as you might think. All it has to do is ablate a tiny bit of material from the target, enough to raise it's apogee a bit which then pushes the perigee deeper into the atmosphere causing it to fall out of orbit relatively quickly (a handful of orbits later). The idea isn't to spot an incoming rock and zap it away, it's to keep the general orbit clear of debris. And the best part is, using adaptive optics, it's possible to base such a system on the ground.

  • I've read theories that debris hitting the station would blow things apart, not punch through.

    • To some extent it depends on the size and speed of the impacting object, however in most cases this is going to be like a high speed bullet (very high speed, 8X normal) hitting a sheet of metal. It either dents it like a bullet hitting a highway sign or punches through. For things to be blown apart, the initial impact would have to be large enough and fast enough and have the right substances involved to cause a lot of shrapnel, which blows out the far side.
  • As long as it didn't come from the Arachnid Quarantine Zone, I think we'll be ok. I'm sure Beunos Aires was reassured by the news.
  • If it could be used as raw materials, its value (and cost of processing) would compete with payload costs.

    at least for now, collect it into larger, manageable chunks.
  • by Anonymous Coward

    Chris Hadfield isn't 'just' an astronaut on the ISS, he's currently the ISS Commander.

  • by bkmoore (1910118) on Tuesday April 30, 2013 @03:34PM (#43594473)
    I was looking for that socket wrench I lost on Skylab 2...
    • I was looking for that socket wrench I lost on Skylab 2...

      "Lost" Haha. Suuuuure, because tethers don't exist. It must have been an "accident".
      You don't have to hide your allegiance, you're among friends here. We of the Sovereignty of Sealab have our operatives everywhere.
      Down With Space! Up with SeaLabia!

  • by PPH (736903) on Tuesday April 30, 2013 @04:26PM (#43595105)

    ... would be to sleep in the bathtub from now on.

  • "Ok the tracer hit the station, now load the real projectile"
  • I'm sure the people interested in solving this problem already know this, but they could use a high-power Q-switched laser (to allow pulsing) with a large, steerable, variable-focus lens (probably the most difficult part of this solution) to vaporize small bits of the objects, and force them into the upper atmosphere to burn up.

    As said, such a system could be quite difficult and expensive to design. First of all, it would require a very large lense or mirror system to reach tightly focused beams at long dis

  • "Chris Hadfield, an astronaut currently on the ISS"

    Chris Hadfield is not just an astronaut on the ISS. He's the Commander of the ISS right now. Oh and he's Canadian.

    • by Mal-2 (675116)

      "Chris Hadfield, an astronaut currently on the ISS"

      Chris Hadfield is not just an astronaut on the ISS. He's the Commander of the ISS right now. Oh and he's Canadian.

      So how quickly did the ISS apologize for being in the way of the speeding debris?

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