Smashing Satellites for Science

Patti Sheaffer carefully gets the first target ready to be blown to smithereens. (Photo courtesy DebriSat Project)

Usually, scientists and engineers work very hard to keep spacecraft from colliding. In April, however, a team of researchers deliberately sent a projectile flying into their “spacecraft” just to see what would happen.

DebriSat, as the unfortunate object was dubbed, was part of an experiment to help researchers study what happens when objects impact each other in space.

“The test used one of the most powerful light gas guns in the world to accelerate a soup-can-sized projectile to just shy of orbital velocity to collide with the targets, including a realistic satellite mock-up,” said Marlon Sorge, the technical lead for the project at Aerospace. “Nothing like this has really been done for debris in 20 years.”

The study of space debris is growing in importance. As more and more objects get launched into space, there are more items that must be tracked to avoid collisions. And if collisions do occur, they create even more debris that must be tracked.

The goal of this project, started several years ago, is to understand what happens during collisions and to be able to accurately model how the debris spreads. It was an ambitious undertaking that required the expertise of a number of different organizations: The Aerospace Corporation, the Space and Missile Systems Center, the NASA Orbital Debris Program Office, the University of Florida, and the Arnold Engineering and Development Complex.

One area in which Aerospace was able to provide expertise was the design of the test satellite. The researchers wanted to approximate a real satellite as closely as possible, while not incurring the costs associated with a real satellite.

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