Wednesday, August 17

How an ESA satellite made a maneuver to avoid garbage | Digital Trends Spanish


The accumulation of garbage that harms the environment is not only a problem here on Earth: it is also a problem in space. Every year more and more discarded rocket stages, broken satellites and other bits of debris are put into orbit around our planet, and not all of them are deorbited responsibly. The result is that there is a lot of garbage floating in space where satellites, telescopes and even the International Space Station.

This debris can pose a real threat to space missions, as was recently demonstrated when a European Space Agency (ESA) research satellite had to perform an emergency maneuver to avoid a collision with a stray piece of debris. While there is so much debris around that the need to perform such maneuvers is unfortunately relatively common, this event was different because ESA only had hours of warning that an impact was imminent.

Large pieces of debris are usually tracked so that space agencies or other satellite operators know when a piece approaches an orbit that is currently in use. This means they can plan evasive maneuvers in advance. But when a piece of debris was seen on June 30 heading towards one of ESA’s Swarm satellites investigating Earth’s magnetic field, the impact was predicted to occur within a few hours.

“ESA’s Space Debris Office analyzes data from the US Space Surveillance Network and raises the warning of a potential collision to ESA’s Flight Control and Flight Dynamics teams, typically more than 24 hours. before the piece of debris gets closer to the satellite,” write the ESA. “In this case, we only get eight hours’ notice.”

ESA had to pull out all the stops to clear the satellite’s trajectory of debris, as performing such maneuvers requires a great deal of planning. Operators have to make sure the satellite’s new orbit doesn’t put it too close to any other satellites or debris, and they also have to have a plan for how to return the satellite to its original orbit once the danger has passed.

When the debris threatened the Swarm satellite, it was already preparing to carry out a planned maneuver to raise its orbit to avoid the increase in the density of the upper atmosphere where it is located, caused by the increase in solar activity. ESA operators had to find a way to avoid space debris and ensure that the Swarm satellite could safely enter its highest orbit. They managed to calculate the avoidance maneuver in just four hours, then raised orbit in 24 hours.

The Swarm satellite is now safe, along with its two constellation partners, and can return to its research work. But this incident demonstrates just how threatening space debris can be, and it’s a problem that will only get worse until all space agencies and private space companies working together take decisive action to address it.

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