Tag: space junk

Paper-Thin Spacecraft Could Take Out The Trash In Space

NASA has awarded Aerospace a grant to investigate the possibility of developing an extremely thin spacecraft that would wrap around debris and remove it from Earth’s orbit.

The innovative concept, called Brane Craft, is a 1-meter square spacecraft that is less than half the thickness of a human hair, and therefore exceptionally light, maneuverable, and fuel efficient.

The Brane Craft concept is based on the one-dimensional compression of a complete spacecraft and upper stage into an essentially two-dimensional object in order to maximize power-to-weight and aperture-to-weight ratios,” said Dr. Siegfried Janson, the lead investigator on this project.




If you have trouble wrapping your brane, er brain, around the concept, think of the spacecraft as a large piece of high-tech plastic wrap zipping through space and enveloping flying garbage.

The Brane Craft is one of 13 ideas that were picked for the NASA Innovative Advanced Concepts (NIAC) program, which, according to NASA, “nurtures visionary ideas that could transform future NASA missions with the creation of breakthroughs — radically better or entirely new aerospace concepts.

NIAC provides $100,000 for nine months of research, with the possibility of another $500,000 for two more years if the results are promising.

Janson’s idea for the Brane Craft is definitely cutting-edge, and it could provide a solution to a difficult problem—how to get rid of all the orbital debris that could harm active spacecraft.

Janson had previously considered a concept called the Distributed Orbital Garbage Sweeper (DOGS).

DOGS would consist of many small satellites sent to “fetch” individual pieces of orbiting debris and bring them down to burn up in the atmosphere. The problem was the cost.

Sending conventional spacecraft, even CubeSats, to each of the thousands of 10-cm or larger debris objects for active deorbiting is prohibitively expensive,” Janson said.

Undaunted, Janson, who has worked in the field of small satellites for about 20 years, decided to go even smaller, at least in mass, with the Brane Craft.

To put the mass in perspective, a GPS IIF satellite weighs about 1500 kg, and a standard CubeSat is about 1 kg. The Brane Craft would only weigh about 50 grams.

The 30-micron-thick spacecraft would have a very high thrust-to-weight ratio, and would be capable of traveling long distances, which opens up other possibilities beyond just the removal of space debris.

Brane Craft prospectors could land on any near-Earth asteroid, Phobos, Deimos, a wide variety of main belt asteroids, or orbit Mars or Venus, and return,” Janson said.

Brane Craft could access just about any orbit within cis-lunar space [between Earth and the moon] several times, with propellant to spare.

It sounds great in theory, but obviously there are a number of engineering challenges associated with actually creating a flat spacecraft.

Janson has identified a number of current technologies that he believes could adapted for the Brane Craft, such as thin film solar cells and electrospray thrusters to propel the craft through space.

To allow the Brane Craft to change shape, he is considering electrostatic polymers that will contract like muscles when a voltage is applied. He’ll also be investigating thin film transistors, super flat cameras, and more.

This whole exercise is to see: can I get everything that I need for this spacecraft to fit on a thin sheet?” he said.

That’s what he will spend the next nine months researching. If successful, the Brane Craft project could provide a method of cleaning up the plethora of junk around the Earth, not to mention a really cool spacecraft with other potential uses.

According to NASA, “NIAC projects study innovative, technically credible, advanced concepts that could one day ‘change the possible’ in aerospace.”

The Brane Craft project aspires to do just that.

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Pass it on: Popular Science

How Do We Clean Up All That Space Debris?

This is a big problem that many people are still trying to figure out, because there is a lot of junk out in space, and it is incredibly dangerous.

As of September 2012, we are currently monitoring 21,000 individual pieces of stuff orbiting the planet which are larger than about 2 inches.

Anything this size which is going fast enough to stay in orbit poses a significant threat to satellites, spacecraft, and space stations.

The ISS will regularly maneuver out of the way of space junk if we see it coming soon enough.

If there isn’t enough time to move the whole ISS, then the crew members of the ISS have to take shelter in one of the Soyuz capsules which are attached to the ISS in case an emergency evacuation is needed.

The two inch limit on tracking isn’t an indication that there aren’t any pieces smaller than that, or that we don’t have to worry about the little ones; we simply can’t spot them from the ground.




We fully expect there to be around 100 million more objects out there in the < 0.5 inch category.

Even paint chips at orbital speeds can cause significant damage to a spacecraft. A few of the space shuttle missions had paint flakes impact the windshield of the craft, which is an unsettling sight to say the least.

I can tell you the worst way to clean up a dead satellite, which unfortunately happened in 2007; the Chinese military decided to test their anti-satellite technology on one of their dead weather satellites.

This test successfully exploded the dead satellite, and created over two thousand new pieces of space debris, which, at the time, increased our space junk tally by 25%.

There have been a few suggestions on how to get the stuff that’s already up there down; some options are more passive than others.

The space station Mir ran an experiment in 1996 where they attached pieces of gel onto the outside of the space station to see what kinds of microscopic space junk they could catch.

They found a lot of liquid droplets, soap, and tiny paint fragments, along with pieces of broken spacecraft, and tiny electronic fragments.

This was instructive, but not particularly effective for cleaning out the reservoir of stuff surrounding our planet.

The best method to date to keep the skies clear is to make sure that when you put a spacecraft up in space, it comes with a way to come down again.

Usually this means that the craft should have a way to intentionally slow itself down enough to re-enter the atmosphere.

But those are only options for spacecraft which haven’t yet been launched, or have thought ahead more than most, and it doesn’t help get rid of the dead satellites we can’t communicate with, or any of the broken pieces of satellite shrapnel.

For those, the only option is to send up some kind of clean-up satellite which can help slow down all the miscellaneous pieces.

Again, there have been many proposals; the most plausible involve grabbing onto dead spacecraft somehow, and then de-orbiting as a pair.

Unfortunately, we can’t just go up and push every dead satellite down to Earth; not only is this impractical in the extreme.

All of the privately owned satellites are still privately owned regardless of whether or not they still work, and burning them up in the atmosphere would be burning someone else’s property, even if it doesn’t work anymore.

For now, until some of these cleaner satellites can get up there and start pulling down some of the pieces, our main goal with space debris is simply to not produce any more than we already have.

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Pass it on: New Scientist

China’s Tiangong-1 Space Station Will Fall From The Sky Within Weeks

China’s first space station is expected to come crashing down to Earth within weeks, but scientists have not been able to predict where the 8.5-tonne module will hit.

The US-funded Aerospace Corporation estimates Tiangong-1 will re-enter the atmosphere during the first week of April, give or take a week.

The European Space Agency says the module will come down between 24 March and 19 April.

In 2016 China admitted it had lost control of Tiangong-1 and would be unable to perform a controlled re-entry.

The statement from Aerospace said there was “a chance that a small amount of debris” from the module will survive re-entry and hit the Earth.




Aerospace warned that the space station might be carrying a highly toxic and corrosive fuel called hydrazine on board.

The report includes a map showing the module is expected to re-enter somewhere between 43° north and 43° south latitudes.

The chances of re-entry are slightly higher in northern China, the Middle East, central Italy, northern Spain and the northern states of the US, New Zealand, Tasmania, parts of South America and southern Africa.

However, Aerospace insisted the chance of debris hitting anyone living in these nations was tiny.

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Pass it on: Popular Science

If Asteroids Don’t Destroy Elon Musk’s Space Tesla, Radiation Will, Experts Say

Its billion-year mission: To circle the sun, to hopefully not crash into Mars, to boldly go where no car has gone before.

Elon Musk’s old Roadster became the first car in history to be blasted into space on Tuesday, riding the successful test launch of the Falcon Heavy mega rocket to an orbital path that’s projected to send it out to Mars—or maybe even further.

In a tweet, Musk reported that the “third burn” procedure to push the Roadster out of Earth’s orbit worked a little too well, with the trajectory now slated to reach the edge of the asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter.

But as Live Science reported, big space rocks aren’t really the most significant threat to the spacefaring sports car.




No, that would be good ol’ radiation, which has the potential to mostly disintegrate the Tesla Roadster within a year or two, according to William Carroll, an Indiana University chemist and molecular expert.

Without the protection afforded by the Earth’s atmosphere and magnetic field, the Roadster will be bombarded by radiation that will eventually tear apart anything not made of metal on the car.

All of the organics will be subjected to degradation by the various kinds of radiation that you will run into there,” Carroll said, noting that the term “organics” in this case includes not only fabric and leather but all plastic components as well as the car’s carbon fiber body.

Those organics, in that environment, I wouldn’t give them a year.”

Musk’s cherry-red Tesla already survived a full blast of radiation as it traveled through the planet’s Van Allen belt on its way out of Earth’s orbit, but the extended timeline of its journey creates a much different situation; eventually, the spacefaring Roadster could wind up stripped down to its aluminum chassis.

Any metal parts that do survive probably won’t look exactly the same either; Carroll added that it would be nearly impossible to avoid micrometeoroids that will pockmark exposed surfaces a thousand times over.

Live Science also got in touch with Richard Sachleben, a member of the American Chemical Society’s expert panel, who “largely agreed” with Carroll’s points, though he thought the Tesla might stay intact for a little longer than a year.

A direct impact with an asteroid could always change that timeline, though.

Then again, even if some future human were pluck it out of orbit and haul it home to see if it still works, it wouldn’t run: Musk & Co. reportedly stripped the car’s powertrain entirely before mounting it on the rocket.

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Pass it on: Popular Science

Take A Look At Our Cosmic Neighborhood

Due to the protective shielding of dangerous Galactic Cosmic Rays provided by a heliosphere or astrosphere, these structures are important for the planets that orbit the respective stars.

Only over the last 15 years, we have been able to detect the first astrospheres and planets around other stars (exoplanets). Graphic of the most immediate environment around the Sun, our cosmic neighborhood.




The locations of known astrospheres and exoplanets are indicated, while we anticipate that many more are present and just awaiting discovery.

The nearest star, alpha Centauri has an astrosphere, and we know of at least two cases where we have detected both an astrosphere and exoplanets.

These systems are truly analogous to our system in which the heliosphere shields a diverse planetary system.

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Pass it on: Popular Science

An Out-Of-Control Chinese Space Lab Is Hurtling Towards Earth

Chinese officials appear to have admitted they lost control of the Tiangong-1, the country’s first space station.

A Chinese space lab, called Tiangong-1, is currently hurtling towards Earth and is expected to re-enter into our atmosphere sometime between now and early next year.

Tiangong-1 or “heavenly palace” was originally launched by China’s National Space Administration back in 2011.

The 12-metre lab, which weighs about 8.5 tonnes, was a major step towards the country’s goal of building a space station by 2020.




It was also where China’s first female astronaut, Liu Yang, flew on a mission in 2012.

But things went wrong when China lost control of the lab last year, and now they are playing a waiting game, trying to anticipate when and where it will fall to Earth.

Space archaeology expert Alice Gorman, from Flinders University, said while China will be able to monitor its descent, it won’t be able to control its landing.

In September 2016, China’s Xinhua news agency reported that Tiangong-1 was “intact and orbiting at an average height of 370 kilometres”.

Since then it has dropped about 60 kilometres, Dr Gorman said.

Dr Gorman said Tiangong-1 is travelling at high speed estimated at about 27,000 kilometres per hour and will burn up when it re-enters Earth’s atmosphere.

When it hits the atmosphere it will start to slow down and heat up, due to friction and atmospheric compression. As it heats, it will break up into burning fragments,” she said.

Dr Gorman said its likely that some bits of Tiangong-1 will survive re-entry.

Usually these are materials with the highest melting temperature and the most insulation,” she said.

Generally titanium pressure vessels and stainless steel fuel tanks are the most common spacecraft component to survive re-entry.

Dr Gorman said Tiangong-1 had steel alloy tanks, but an analysis of the materials suggested they would burn up long before they reached the ground.

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Pass it on: Popular Science