Here we go again: ISS under threat of collision

By Phil Plait | March 16, 2009 2:00 pm

No, this is not a repeat from a few days ago: NASA is tracking a piece of orbital debris that will pass uncomfortably close to the Space Station tonight. At 07:14 UT it’ll pass about 800 meters (about half a mile) from the ISS, much closer than last week’s 5 km (3 miles) miss.

This one is close enough that NASA is considering firing onboard jets to maneuver the ISS away from the debris. They’ll decide that by 20:00 (UT) tonight.

The Shuttle is on its way to the ISS but won’t be there until tomorrow, long after the danger has passed. Come to think of it, the best time to be threatened by debris is when the Shuttle is almost there. However, it’s not like the Shuttle can do much; the physics of orbital mechanics makes a daring rescue very unlikely. I doubt they have enough fuel on board to accelerate to the ISS, decelerate to match velocities, and do the deorbit burn to get back to Earth.

As usual, the best scenario is to avoid collision (the same is true for asteroid impacts). They’re tracking this, so we’ll see what happens.

Tip o’ the Whipple shield to Twitterers jcorradino, thenetruebix, and avinsen.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: NASA

Comments (47)

  1. Hi, I’m a Twitter follower of yours & a blogger. Love your site, love your new twitter avatar, & I believe you can’t tweet breaking launches enough – you did far too few for the Discovery launch.

    Anyway, I wanted to call your attention to my first in a series of posts that grades the shuttle wake up call of the day – today being “Free Bird.”
    http://thepublicinterest.freedomblogging.com/2009/03/16/todays-shuttle-wakeup-call-review-free-bird/
    Just thought you might be interested.
    Thanks, & keep up the good work.
    -Dan (“the Public Interest” blog)

  2. Considering the volume of space junk up there, a collision is probably inevitable. Hopefully it won’t be too serious.

  3. Todd W.

    @John Paradox

    Duck & Cover!

    No, no, no. That’s for nuclear blasts! I think “Duck and Weave” would be more appropriate.

  4. QUASAR

    Just how much space debris have humans placed in orbit?

  5. Is it at all plausible to launch supplies of fuel into space for emergencies where the shuttle might need to quickly change orbits? Or for the future Orion vehicle?

  6. Solution #3525113 to the Fermi paradox: technological civilisations end up putting sufficient junk into orbit that spacefaring ceases to be a possibility.

  7. TheElkMechanic

    Why doesn’t the shuttle have enough fuel to reach the space station if they need to? They did in Space Camp. Did they change the design since then? (Jinx and Max, friends forever!)

  8. Michelle

    Now see, I use military time too much. I was all “The debris goes by at 7 and…they’re gonna decide at 8 what they’ll do? Huh?”

    Stupid me.

    Anyway, 800 meters IS pretty close for comfort. I hope they move. But how much does it “cost” to move the ISS?

  9. So here’s what I’m wondering:

    There is, apparently, a substantial amount of space junk flying around the planet. I suppose that’s to be expected, after 50+ years of us throwing stuff up there.

    As the ISS keeps growing, though, won’t this become a more serious issue? The bigger it gets, the more difficult (and costly) it’s going to be to play dodgeball every time some piece of debris comes flying out of nowhere.

    So is NASA looking at new solutions for the problem? Shielding, or maybe some sort of tool/weapon to deflect or destroy incoming debris?

  10. @badastronomer that in the same year two satelites collided.

    Now the question is: what did we plan in terms of defense system in our billion dollar floating lab?

  11. Daniel Pawtowski

    @Shane-
    I don’t think the shuttle can be refueled in flight. The hardware needed to do that has weight. Major changes to a scheduled rendevous is tricky; this *is* rocket science, after all.

  12. Cheyenne

    @Alexandre- “One billion dollar lab”? I wish….

    The only defense is being vigilant and playing Frogger when they see something incoming.

  13. @Daniel Pawtowski:

    But in the future vehicles, I could imagine being able to doc with a “tanker” ship like we do with the KC-135.

  14. Michelle

    hey I think it’s past 20:00 UTC… Does anyone know what they decided?

  15. Timothy from Boulder

    “Now the question is: what did we plan in terms of defense system in our billion dollar floating lab?”

    Statistics, risk assessment, and dodging.

    “So is NASA looking at new solutions for the problem? Shielding, or maybe some sort of tool/weapon to deflect or destroy incoming debris?”

    There is no current effective shielding for something even as small as a several kg mass (like the earlier yo mass) travelling at the speeds involved. No reliable weapon exists (or AFAIK is even contemplated.)

    The problem is that even small masses are travelling at huge velocities and prediction is only so good. The only solution at present is to get out of the way, and to minimize creating more debris through adequate spacecraft design and deorbiting strategies.

  16. mk

    Best case scenario…

    …space debris smacks into ISS, totals it, no astronauts injured, picked up by shuttle crew, returned safely to earth, thoroughly damaged ISS drops into the sea. No more arguing about funding that big bucket of drinkable urine. ;^}

  17. Stuart

    @QUASAR all of it, obviously. And stop trying to be a Troll, you’re no good at it.

  18. Valdis Kletnieks

    @shane: Sure, it would be *possible* to launch fuel caches for the shuttle to use. However, it becomes a chicken-and-egg problem:

    If you don’t have enough fuel to change orbit to reach the ISS, you probably *also* don’t have enough fuel to change orbit to reach the fuel cache (unless you were extremely lucky and this mission’s orbital parameters happened to line up with the fuel cache). So now you need to have enough fuel to reach the cache so you’ll have enough fuel….

    Complicating the problem is the fact that there’s usually only 3 basic mission profiles for the shuttle: (1) Go to repair Hubble (2) Go to ISS and (3) initial close approximation to whatever orbit the thing we’re launching out of the bay will end up in. And since (3) is a total crap shoot of various orbit inclinations where no two missions are the same and you’ll almost *never* have enough fuel to have the delta-V to go to a fuel depot, the only sane places for a fuel depot are near Hubble and near the ISS…

  19. Just how much space debris have humans placed in orbit?

    All of it.

  20. Bill

    > the only sane places for a fuel depot are near Hubble and near the ISS…

    …but since there’s only one more servicing mission planned for Hubble before the shuttle fleet is scrapped…

  21. Cheyenne

    @MK – I really don’t like the ISS either but I don’t like the thought of it being hit and falling into the ocean (or just becoming yet more damaged floating waste up there). We’ve already spent the money building most of it. Now I just hope we can run it on a shoestring (which, in NASA’s world, is quite a hefty shoestring) and give it second place priority over, well, basically any other mission NASA is working on.

  22. mk

    @Cheyenne…

    Yeah, I get you. Just my lame attempt at some dark humor.

  23. Torbjörn Larsson, OM

    So I assume they will have a second Soyuz escape vehicle permanently docked when the crew gets bumped up to 6 regulars in May (and gets BA happy by doubling or so the scarce science time)? After last time it seems to me they need the safeguard.

    how much space debris have humans placed in orbit?

    Not so much AFAIU. But it’s traveling around at tremendous speeds, and with the used safe margin sweeps out huger volumes than your average junk yard.

  24. Pieter Kok

    Cheyenne, that is the strategy responsible for all the big over-budget projects in human history. When Mozes and his peeps left Egypt, the pharao probably told his architect: “We can’t stop building the pyramid now, we already paid for half of it!” ;-)

  25. Look at how much has been spent on the ISS. And then look at how much money is going into America’s new stimulus package, or how much money is going into pretty much any government program you can name. Even if it does spend less, compare what it’s doing. NASA actually *is* rocket science. It needs money.

  26. ISS Commander, Mike Fincke (who btw celebrated his 42nd birthday on Saturday) has just been informed that the Debris Avoidance Manuever will NOT be necessary.

  27. @Todd
    How about “Duck and Thrust”…?

  28. Cheyenne

    Pieter and Senethior – Sorry, I just humbly disagree. I go to NASA’s own webpage describing the science they are doing on the ISS and it is, quite frankly, pretty lame. It’s not like I’m some anti-scientific troll. There are lots of people that look at the ISS and lament that it’s just not doing that much (and at way too high a cost).

    “NASA actually *is* rocket science. It needs money.”. I completely agree. Double the funding and give them the mandate to solve the biggest scientific questions we have about the universe (these questions, incidentally, don’t involve how spiders make webs in zero G or journal entries on dream states of sleeping astronauts). The ISS fails because it’s too expensive, it doesn’t give us a scientific return, and it has no clear purpose (and it’s also risky as we’re seeing with collision possibilities – and it doesn’t “inspire” anybody). It exists for the sole sake of existing.

    What I do know is that there are a lot of really good missions that are getting chopped or scaled back or delayed for funding reasons. Those missions are 10 times more exciting and important than the ISS (in my humble opinion). But actually, I’ll concede I’m probably wrong. NASA is full of brilliant people that have made the determination that manned flight is much more important and a better investment than unmanned missions (I can make this statement by looking at the budget allocation).

    I’m just hoping for more change from Obama.

  29. TheBlackCat

    @ Todd: Serpentine! Serpentine!

    Question: if they move the ISS, will it make it harder for the shuttle to reach them at the appointed time? How flexible is the space shuttle’s orbit?

  30. CNN just says that NASA reports they won’t have to move the ISS

  31. # Michael L Says:
    How about “Duck and Thrust”…?

    Oh, great, now I have TimeWarp from Rocky Horror Picture Show running through my head….

    J/P=?

  32. Bill

    @John:

    I should smack you.
    That song really drives me insa-yay-yay-yay-yane.

  33. Ryan

    I blame Twitter. Since everyone started using Twitter we’ve had planes landing in rivers, fireballs over Texas, and two near collisions with the ISS. These things simply didn’t happen before. And that’s just in the past two months.

  34. T_U_T

    double the funding and give them the mandate to solve the biggest scientific questions we have about the universe (these questions, incidentally, don’t involve how spiders make webs in zero G or journal entries on dream states of sleeping astronauts). The ISS fails because it’s too expensive, it doesn’t give us a scientific return, and it has no clear purpose (and it’s also risky as we’re seeing with collision possibilities – and it doesn’t “inspire” anybody). It exists for the sole sake of existing.

    Actually, the opposite is more likely. abandon ISS and see nasa budget to shrink by double that amount.
    This is why no one here wants ISS to be abandoned.

    I would suggest other approach.
    1. compulsory radiophobia treatment for all greenpeace members
    2. 3 or more reactor powered orbital tugboats
    3. one pushes ISS to L4 lagrange point the others provide supply
    4. start using ISS as building platform for other missions

  35. Grump

    AFAI can see, the only really useful thing the ISS has done for science is teaching us more about how to live and work out in space. And that’s a very useful thing to know! (Urine filters etc.)

    But it is an expensive way of going about it, given that there’s nothing much else that it’s doing. And it’s only building on what the Russians did with Mir – It’s not like we knew nothing about the subject before.

    Less about science: Getting so many nations to contribute has been a wonderful exercise in politics (but trust the Russians and Japanese to put a spanner in the works), and may have laid the foundations for much more co-operation across language, cultural and time-zone issues. (Issues about physical distance are 99% solved already – Thank you The Internet!)

  36. Charles Boyer

    “abandon ISS and see nasa budget to shrink by double that amount.”

    That’s exactly what would happen.

    It is very clear that some people here don’t have much understanding of the relationship between NASA and congressional politics. Apparently they haven’t followed the search for a new administrator closely at all. Hint: Bill Nelson.

  37. Varn

    I don’t get what all the fuss is about. Why don’t they just fry anything incoming with the onboard lasers?

  38. Al Viro

    “Reactor-powered” or not, to get from LEO to L4 you’ll need either shitloads of reaction mass for every payload or a lot of time if you go for something like ion engines (continuous firing, high specific impulse, very low thrust). And life support is not free, so longer time from LEO insertion to station is not a good thing. Evacuating the damn
    thing also becomes a much more interesting exercise that way…

  39. gss_000

    “And it’s only building on what the Russians did with Mir – It’s not like we knew nothing about the subject before.”

    So by this argument, we shouldn’t send up any more spacecraft to Mars or space telescopes because we’ve done that before. There have been advances becuase of the station beyond what Mir did. Like the sleep studies that found that astronauts and people in general suffered when exposed to moonlight at certain times of the day.

    I think a lot of people discount the ISS and manned spaceflight in general because a lot of what it does is not flashy. Spacehab is trying to develop a vaccine to salmonella through its work at the ISS. NASA is also going to test the VASIMR on the station as well as its Disruption-Tolerant Networking interplanetary internet protocol. There’s also the Alpha Magnetic Spectrometer that probably will be mounted on the ISS in 2010, not to mention the Russian EXPOSR experiment that was just placed on the outside of the station last week. Sure, there was some hype early one. But no science? Hardly.

    You’ll also see a lot more “return” when there is a crew of 6 versus 3 now.

  40. T_U_T

    t is very clear that some people here don’t have much understanding of the relationship between NASA and congressional politics.

    Actually, they do. They just want to dismantle nasa to put the money to better nudge-wink-wink use. The “ISS is wasted money” battle cry is only a pretense. What they really want is to abandon manned flight either for selfish-shortsighted ( I want keep all my money, screw anything and anyone else ), ideological ( four legs good, two legs bad, private good, government bad ), or misanthropic ( mankind is a pest and should be prevented from spreading, or the robots are better humans ) reasons.

  41. I think a huge part of the problem (as MSNBC just reported-my name links to the article) is that only 16% of the NASA workforce is under 40. People in that age bracket probably have a different mindset to having people in space because they remember back in the good old days of Apollo and getting boots on the moon (which was amazing – back then).

    I think the younger crowd (just generally speaking) is probably much more comfortable with having rovers and other robotic probes out there – can appreciate that it really is “us” doing exploration when we send those out. And we’re probably less patient admittedly and want to get going with exploration and scientific discovery as fast as possible (which obviously means sending robots and not people to Mars for example. Or developing missions to go to Europa or more missions that will bring back samples from different places in the solar system).

    @GSS- Why does the Alpha Magnetic Spectrometer have to be mounted on the ISS? I read a couple of interesting articles on that. Looks like a very neat experiment. It also looks like an experiment that is being bolted to the ISS simply so NASA can boost their marketing problem of not doing much really good science up there. In terms of the vaccine work maybe there is a specific reason it can only be done in microgravity (I can’t imagine that is remotely true but I’m not a biologist/chemist) – but I really think that if we want to develop vaccines it would be much better on the whole to develop them in earth labs.

  42. T_U_T

    cheyene. be honest. Do you want manned flight to cease for good, or not.

  43. Cheyenne

    TUT – I am being honest. Open book. There is no conspiracy here my man. And you seem to have in your mind that I am arguing against manned space travel for some sort of selfish economic reason. I find that kind of funny but bizarre.

    Yes – of course I want manned space flight. I want to fire up my anti-matter powered jet mobile and go zip off to Jupiter for lunch and have desert on Mars. But I recognize that we have some actual constraints that we live in and that we have to prioritize what we are spending our time and money on.

    NASA has a budget and it has to make tough decisions on what gets the green light and what doesn’t. Unmanned missions are faster, cheaper, better, safer, and return far more science than what is done on some lab in LEO. If the ISS actually did something clearly useful and had a good mission I would be totally for it. But since it doesn’t and the opportunity cost is so high yes I’m against it (and I’m hardly alone in that line of thinking).

    And for those of you that counter that NASA’s budget will shrink if they reduce manned spaceflights I can only say that success and discovery make the public more inclined to support the agency. The Hubble is absolutely loved by the public. Way more than the ISS. Children have toys of the little Mars rovers. Ever seen a kid with an ISS toy? And speaking of money – let’s say NASA goes out and finds a form of life that arose independently of earth in the Martian subsoil or in an ocean of a moon – they would have made one of the most important discoveries ever and would have more money than they would know what to do with.

    But actually TUT – you tell me why you think manned flight should be done at the direct expense of not doing many more unmanned ones (let’s be honest here – there is a trade off in these decisions). Tell me why NASA’s budget is overwhelmingly favored to putting humans into the ISS and not focused on doing the kinds of missions that have a much better track record of discovering new things and have clear scientific payouts.

    As it is right now I really hope the Japanese or the Indians can put together some robots that can find life in the solar system because we know that questions like that are not the highest priority of the our agency. I can’t imagine how stupid we would look if we got scooped on something as monumental as that.

  44. Robert Carnegie

    When the shuttle gets to ISS, it spends like another day flying in to dock very very slowly. In a projected collision emergency, I think the Shuttle would not go near till it was over. Anyway, -don’t- they have a Russian escape module, or was that another fantasy? Are there enough space suits on ISS for everyone to be protected in case they are opened to space? Can they shelter in -part- of the ISS? Would they do that cool thing that Arthur C. Clarke was always putting in stories, like [2001] but not [Total Recall] – the suitless EVA?

  45. Brian

    Here’s what I think about. OK, it’s a pretty good idea to get the crew into the escape module. You can seal the hatch and if you have to undock, you’re (presumably) ready to go.

    But what if it’s the escape module that gets hit? Now you’re in a real pickle. There’s no way they have good enough hazard tracking to know what part of the ISS is at risk. And with the entire crew in the escape module you risk losing the whole crew at one go.

    Wouldn’t it be better to get everyone in pressure suits, then spread them throughout the ship, closing whatever hatches can be closed? Think of it like a submarine. A sub under attack doesn’t gather the entire crew in the conning tower. That way, if the ship gets hit, and even if some crew are hurt, there are rescuers who are close at hand.

    The thing is, if you lose the crew, I’ve gotta think you risk losing the whole ship. Not that the ship is your first priority admittedly. However since the ISS sustains life and if there are surviving crew, you want that ship to survive too.

    Seems like putting all the crew in the escape module is like putting all your proverbial eggs in one basket.

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