Why scientists are building a satellite just so they can crash it

Contributed by
Jan 14, 2013, 2:52 PM EST

We've been launching things into Earth orbit for more than half a century now, and we've left a lot of space junk floating around up there in our wake. That space junk could come back to bite us someday when it rips a future spacecraft to shreds, so to better understand how orbiting debris behaves, scientists are building a full-sized satellite just to wreck it. You know, for science.

Scientists at NASA and the Air Force's Space and Missile Systems Center have partnered to build DebriSat, a 110-pound satellite build to mimic the materials, components and structure of a working satellite in low-Earth orbit. Only this one's not going to space. It's going to pieces so scientists can study its debris patterns in an effort to predict how future orbital collisions might happen.

"Collision fragments are expected to dominate the future orbital debris environment," said J. C. Liou of the Orbital Debris Program Office at NASA. Therefore, it's important for the people in charge of making sure objects in space don't crash to understand how something that does crash might break up. To measure this, DebriSat will be crashed sometime in 2014 in a scenario designed to replicate a high-velocity orbital collision.

But why do this now? Tests have been conducted before to determine how colliding satellites might behave, but according to Liou, the data from those tests is just too old, in large part because the components on modern satellites are far more complex.

"As new materials and new construction techniques are developed for modern satellites, there is a need to conduct additional laboratory-based tests and use the new data to further enhance the breakup models," Liou said.

There's also the issue of accurately measuring the debris. When actual collisions happen in orbit, the U.S. Space Surveillance Network can collect some data on the debris patterns, but it only really sees larger fragments. Some pieces of debris stemming from these collisions can be as small as one millimeter, and even they can do some damage.

So, in an effort to understand how every single piece of debris, no matter the size, behaves in a collision, the DebriSat team will crash their satellite, then collect and measure every chunk that flies off of it. The data will then (hopefully) help us predict how future collision will affect spaceflight.

(Via Huffington Post)

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