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The International Space Station and the Space Debris Environment: 10 Years OnFor just over a decade the International Space Station (ISS), the most heavily protected vehicle in Earth orbit, has weathered the space debris environment well. Numerous hypervelocity impact features on the surface of ISS caused by small orbital debris and meteoroids have been observed. In addition to typical impacts seen on the large solar arrays, craters have been discovered on windows, hand rails, thermal blankets, radiators, and even a visiting logistics module. None of these impacts have resulted in any degradation of the operation or mission of the ISS. Validating the rate of small particle impacts on the ISS as predicted by space debris environment models is extremely complex. First, the ISS has been an evolving structure, from its original 20 metric tons to nearly 300 metric tons (excluding logistics vehicles) ten years later. Hence, the anticipated space debris impact rate has grown with the increasing size of ISS. Secondly, a comprehensive visual or photographic examination of the complete exterior of ISS has never been accomplished. In fact, most impact features have been discovered serendipitously. Further complications include the estimation of the size of an impacting particle without knowing its mass, velocity, and angle of impact and the effect of shadowing by some ISS components. Inadvertently and deliberately, the ISS has also been the source of space debris. The U.S. Space Surveillance Network officially cataloged 65 debris from ISS from November 1998 to November 2008: from lost cameras, sockets, and tool bags to intentionally discarded equipment and an old space suit. Fortunately, the majority of these objects fall back to Earth quickly with an average orbital lifetime of less than two months and a maximum orbital lifetime of a little more than 15 months. The cumulative total number of debris object-years is almost exactly 10, the equivalent of one piece of debris remaining in orbit for 10 years. An unknown number of debris too small to be tracked and cataloged have also been generated, but normally with even shorter orbital lifetimes. Finally, eight collision avoidance maneuvers have been performed to avoid potential collisions between ISS and large, tracked space debris. The most recent such maneuver was accomplished by ESA's Automated Transfer Vehicle, the Jules Verne, just three months before the 10th anniversary of the launch of ISS's first element.
Document ID
Acquisition Source
Johnson Space Center
Document Type
Conference Paper
Johnson, Nicholas
(NASA Johnson Space Center Houston, TX, United States)
Klinkrad, Heiner
(European Space Agency. European Space Operations Center Darmstadt, Germany)
Date Acquired
August 24, 2013
Publication Date
March 30, 2009
Subject Category
Lunar And Planetary Science And Exploration
Report/Patent Number
Meeting Information
Meeting: 5th European Conference on Space Debris
Location: Darmstadt
Country: Germany
Start Date: March 30, 2009
End Date: April 2, 2009
Distribution Limits
Public Use Permitted.
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