New ESA Project Simulates Satellite Crashes to Prevent Real Space Debris Collisions

Tuesday, 24 April 2018 - 6:38PM
Space
ESA
Tuesday, 24 April 2018 - 6:38PM
New ESA Project Simulates Satellite Crashes to Prevent Real Space Debris Collisions
< >
Wikimedia Commons
While we've never had a scenario like Gravity just yet, the risk of space debris collisions in Earth's orbit is steadily growing as we throw more and more satellites into space.

There still isn't a huge risk, as most of these satellites are constantly tracked by agencies like NASA or sometimes the FCC (except when startups try to launch rogue satellites without permission, which has happened), but it's enough of an issue that if a serious crash does happen, we need to know what to expect.

Which is what the European Space Agency (ESA) intends to figure out with a new project designed to simulate crashing satellites. And a lot of satellite crashes will be tested out in virtual orbit, because while astronomers and government agencies often assume they can predict how a satellite crash would play out, the four recorded crashes have shown otherwise.



According to the head of ESA's Space Debris Office, Holder Krag, only one of the four crashes happened in a predictable way, with the two unfortunate satellites breaking up completely and generating clouds of debris after ramming each other. The others were more complicated, and one reason why we couldn't predict that is because nobody has ever really tried to do this in depth before.

Two different types of digital simulations are being run: the first focuses more on how specific types of metal will deform and bend during an orbital crash, with very detailed replications of the materials programmed in. The second looks at the larger whole of the satellites and how different, connected parts will interact during the energy transfer which occurs during a collision. 

When both types of simulations are combined, the ESA hopes they'll have a better idea of how to deal with fallout during the real deal. Tiziana Cardone, an ESA structural engineer who's in charge of the project, said the following in an official press release:

Opening quote
"We want to understand what happens when two satellites collide. Up until now a lot of assumptions have been made about how the very high collision energy would dissipate, but we don't have a solid understanding of the physics involved. We want to be able to visualise in detail how the satellites would break up, and how many pieces of debris would be produced, to improve the quality of our models and predictions."
Closing quote


Again, a satellite collision isn't too likely, but more satellites are constantly being launched. And once SpaceX gets their huge web of advanced internet satellites set up, it's going to further crowd an already populated sky.
Science
Science News
Space
ESA