Plenty of eyes have been on the sky lately, as stories of space junk collisions, micrometeorite strikes and asteroid fly-bys have been in the news, but scientists working at the appropriately-named HIRT (High-speed Impact Research and Technology) facility at the University of New Brunswick's Planetary and Space Science Centre are on the case, as they test new armour that could end up protecting spacecraft as they orbit the Earth.
Space junk is a growing menace. With each launch into space, we add more and more debris around our planet, in the form of discarded booster rockets, lost equipment, defunct satellites and even weapons. For the most part, those operating satellites and spacecraft in orbit have either been skillful in avoiding collisions, or just lucky, but there have already been some rather alarming examples of impacts.
On February 10th, 2009, two satellites — the American Iridium 33 civilian communications satellite and the Russian Kosmos-2251 military communications satellite — hit each other going 42,120 km/h. Both satellites were destroyed, spreading smaller debris throughout low-Earth orbit.
On January 22nd of this year, there was another incident, as debris from a Chinese weather satellite — which was destroyed in a 2007 anti-satellite weapon test — hit a Russian laser-ranging satellite.
Then on April 29th this year, as reported by our own Commander Chris Hadfield, something hit the International Space Station, punching a bullet-sized hole in one of the station's solar panels.
John Spray, the director of UNB's Planetary and Space Science Centre, and his group have been studying the effects of micrometeorites, by firing projectiles at high-speed using what's known as a 'light gas gun' — so called because it works by forcing a light gas, like hydrogen or helium, down a narrow barrel, accelerating projectiles up to the incredible kilometres-per-second speeds that things are typically flying around at in space (bullets typically only get up to about a third of a km/s).
"We've been studying impact and we understand shock wave materials behaviour, so we're applying that knowledge to help design shielding to protect space infrastructure," Spray said in a statement.
"Micrometeorites are these little guys who are left over from the formation of the solar system who never coagulated to form bigger bodies," he said. "They fly around at an incredible 25-70 km per second and can do a lot of damage if they hit something in their path."
There isn't much that can be done if a large object is going to hit your satellite, other than move it out of the way ahead of time. Fortunately, there are offices that track larger debris, but in the same way that we have trouble finding smaller asteroids and meteoroids, when the debris flying around the planet is only a few millimetres across, it's very hard to find these, let alone track them.
The armour Spray's group is developing is meant to be layered onto a spacecraft, to protect it from impacts from these smaller fragments.
"It's a separate layer. When the micrometeorite hits this, it fragments into smaller pieces and they spray onto the inside, but basically their energy is dissipated. Sometimes we deploy two shield layers so the micrometeorite never even touches the hardware."
Spray spoke about the applications of this technology in a video for the New Brunswick Innovation Foundation:
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Even though space debris is getting more attention these days, and there are several plans in the works to reduce the amount we have to deal with — by collecting what's there now and reducing what we leave behind in future launches — it will take time to put any plans in the works into effect. This kind of research definitely fills a need while we deal with a problem we've been adding to for nearly 60 years, and even after we've handled that (if we ever do) it will still help protect us and our technology against objects that have been whizzing around in our neighbourhood for billions of years.
(Photo courtesy: Chris Hadfield/CSA/NASA)
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