Friday, 17 July 2015

How do you dodge junk when you're in space?

When you are orbiting the earth in a massive 200ton space station it's difficult to get out of the way of all the space junk flying around… it's not impossible… you just have to do it very slowly!

In early February, a Russian news service reported that the International Space Station would have to shift its orbit to dodge debris from a Chinese anti-satellite weapons test. The report was wrong, as it turned out. NASA monitored the debris cloud carefully, and finally decided it wouldn't need to move the station.

If it had needed to move, the station is equipped with a set of 220-pound gyroscopes - stainless steel flywheels that rotate 6,600 times per minute. These, however, can only 'tweak' the position of the space station. To push the ISS into a different orbit good old-fashioned thrust is needed.

But what about bona fide emergencies? How quickly could the station dodge a piece of space junk?

Jack Bacon is a systems integration engineer on the ISS program. Changing orbits is very disruptive to the work done on the station, and "nine times out of ten you don't have to," Bacon says. "You don't want to manoeuvre if you don't have to. It's a big deal to fire the engines."

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