SpaceX and NASA are running into challenges in outer space as of late. It all started on November 15, when Russia launched a missile strike to destroy one of its own old satellites in orbit during a Anti-Satellite Test (ASAT). The satellite was smashed into thousands of pieces that are orbiting Earth now and pose a potential threat to astronauts and operational satellites in orbit. The Russian authorities did not inform global space agencies it would conduct a missile test and the effects of the operation became a threat to NASA astronauts and Russian cosmonauts who are working aboard the International Space Station (ISS).
The United States Department of Defense (DoD) says it is tracking over 1,500 new pieces of debris caused by the missile strike. Some pieces are too small that cannot be traced but pose an equal danger to the astronauts in orbit because the pieces are flying at high-speeds. The pieces in orbit can travel 10 times faster than a bullet which can cause damage to other orbiting objects, including ISS. The astronauts had to take shelter inside their spacecraft when the ASAT took place because the debris is orbiting close to the Space Station every 90 minutes. Most recently, NASA postponed a spacewalk that was scheduled to take place on Tuesday, November 30, due to a space debris alert by mission control.
SpaceX founder Elon Musk shared that the company had to shift some Starlink satellite orbits to avoid collision with the space debris. “We had to shift some Starlink satellite orbits to reduce probability of collision. Not great, but not terrible either,” he stated, in response to an article about the postponed spacewalk. “[Space] Station & Dragon have micrometeorite shields (ultra high velocity impact absorption), but EVA [extravehicular activity] suits do not, hence higher risk for spacewalk,” Musk added.
We had to shift some Starlink satellite orbits to reduce probability of collision. Not great, but not terrible either.— Elon Musk (@elonmusk) November 30, 2021
Station & Dragon have micrometeorite shields (ultra high velocity impact absorption), but EVA suits do not, hence higher risk for spacewalk.
Musk did not elaborate on how many internet-beaming Starlink satellites were shifted to dodge the space debris. The broadband constellation currently has around 1,800 satellites operating in low Earth orbit, at an altitude of around 540 to 550-kilometers, which is higher than the Space Station. SpaceX has approval from the U.S. Federal Communications Commission (FCC) to launch 12,000 satellites to provide internet access. The company says the satellites have the capability to operate autonomously and use the DoD’s space debris tracking system to dodge space junk in orbit, however, the new debris cloud is still being cataloged into the system.
“Space is populated with existing debris, tracked by the [United States Military] 18th Space Control Squadron. Starlink utilizes an automated collision avoidance system, ingesting data from the 18th,” the company told the FCC earlier this year. “Satellites can autonomously evaluate risk and plan avoidance maneuvers, without human input. Humans are still present in an oversight role, as an added measure of safety,” SpaceX stated.
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