Orbital Safety: The Challenges Of Surviving Space Junk

Hanging around in earth orbit is like walking into the middle of a Wild West gunfight — bullets are flying around everywhere, and even though none are purposefully aimed at you, one might have your name on it. Many of these bullets are artificial satellites that are actively controlled and monitored, but we also find dead satellites, remnants of satellites, discarded rocket stages, tools lost during spacewalks, and even flecks of paint and rust, much of it zipping around at multiple kilometers per second without any guidance.

While removing this space debris directly would be ideal, the reality is that any spacecraft and any spacesuit that has to spend time in orbit needs to be capable of sustaining at least some hits by space debris impacting it.

Orbital Mechanics

That it’s easy to create new debris should come as no surprise to anyone. What may take a bit more imagination is just how long it can take for this debris to make its way towards earth’s atmosphere, where it will uneventfully burn up. Everything in orbit is falling toward the earth, but its tangential velocity keeps it from hitting — like a marble spinning around the hole in a funnel. Drag from the planet’s atmosphere is the friction that eventually slows the object down, and where it orbits in the planet’s atmosphere determines how long this descent will take. Continue reading “Orbital Safety: The Challenges Of Surviving Space Junk”