‘Shields to Maximum, Mr. Scott’: Researchers use supercomputers to simulate orbital debris impacts on spacecrafts

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Posted June 28, 2013
This simulation models the perforation of a six-layer harness satin weave Kevlar target (four inches in width) by a 0.44 caliber copper projectile. Credit: Eric Fahrenthold, The University of Texas at Austin

This simulation models the perforation of a six-layer harness satin weave Kevlar target (four inches in width) by a 0.44 caliber copper projectile. Credit: Eric Fahrenthold, The University of Texas at Austin

We know it’s out there, debris from 50 years of space exploration—aluminum, steel, nylon, even liquid sodium from Russian satellites—orbiting around the Earth and posing a danger to manned and unmanned spacecraft.

According to NASA, there are more than 21,000 pieces of ‘space junk’ roughly the size of a baseball (larger than 10 centimeters) in orbit, and about 500,000 pieces that are golf ball-sized (between one to 10 centimeters).

Sure, space is big, but when a piece of space junk strikes a spacecraft, the collision occurs at a velocity of 5 to 15 kilometers per second—roughly ten times faster than a speeding bullet!

“If a spacecraft is hit by orbital debris it may damage the thermal protection system,” said Eric Fahrenthold, professor of mechanical engineering at The University of Texas at Austin, who studies impact dynamics both experimentally and through numerical simulations.

“Even if the impact is not on the main heat shield, it may still adversely affect the spacecraft. The thermal researchers take the results of impact research and assess the effect of a certain impact crater depth and volume on the survivability of a spacecraft during reentry,” Fahrenthold said.

Read more at: Phys.org



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