Once launched, most spacecraft are out of reach of any upgrades or repairs. Mission critical problems must be solved with whatever’s still working on board, and sometimes there’s very little time. Recently ESA’s INTEGRAL team was confronted with a ruthlessly ticking three hour deadline to save the mission.
European Space Agency INTErnational Gamma-Ray Astrophysics Laboratory is one of many space telescopes currently in orbit. Launched in 2002, it has long surpassed its original designed lifespan of two or three years, but nothing lasts forever. A failed reaction wheel caused the spacecraft to tumble out of control and its automatic emergency recovery procedures didn’t work. Later it was determined those procedures were dependent on the thrusters, which themselves failed in the summer of 2020. (Another mission-saving hack which the team had shared earlier.)
With solar panels no longer pointed at the sun, battery power became the critical constraint. Hampering this time-critical recovery effort was the fact that antenna on a tumbling spacecraft could only make intermittent radio contact. But there was enough control to shut down additional systems for a few more hours on battery, and enough telemetry so the team could understand what had happened. Control was regained using remaining reaction wheels.
INTEGRAL has since returned to work, but this won’t be the last crisis to face an aging space telescope. In the near future, its automatic emergency recovery procedures will be updated to reflect what the team has learned. Long term, ESA did their part to minimize space debris. Before the big heavy telescope lost its thrusters, it had already been guided onto a path which will reenter the atmosphere sometime around 2029. Between now and then, a very capable and fast-reacting operations team will keep INTEGRAL doing science for as long as possible.
In the early days of spaceflight, when only the governments of the United States and the Soviet Union had the ability to put an object into orbit, even the most fanciful of futurists would have had a hard time believing that commercial entities would one day be launching sixty satellites at a time. What once seemed like an infinite expanse above our heads is now starting to look quite a bit smaller, and it’s only going to get more crowded as time goes on. SpaceX is gearing up to launch nearly 12,000 individual satellites for their Starlink network by the mid-2020s, and that’s just one of the “mega constellations” currently in the works.
It might seem like overcrowding of Earth orbit is a concern for the distant future, but one needs only look at recent events to see the first hints of trouble. On September 2nd, the European Space Agency announced that one of its research spacecraft had to perform an evasive maneuver due to a higher than acceptable risk of colliding with one of the first-generation Starlink satellites. Just two weeks later, Bigelow Aerospace were informed by the United States Air Force that there was a 1 in 20 chance that a defunct Russian Cosmos 1300 satellite would strike their Genesis II space station prototype.
A collision between two satellites in orbit is almost certain to be catastrophic, ending with both spacecraft either completely destroyed or severely damaged. But in the worst case, the relative velocity between the vehicles can be so great that the impact generates thousands of individual fragments. The resulting cloud of shrapnel can circle the Earth for years or even decades, threatening to tear apart any spacecraft unlucky enough to pass by.
Fortunately avoiding these collisions shouldn’t be difficult, assuming everyone can get on the same page before it’s too late. The recently formed Space Safety Coalition (SSC) is made up of more than twenty aerospace companies that realize the importance of taking proactive steps to ensure humanity retains the unfettered access to outer space by establishing some common “Rules of the Road” for future spacecraft.