During a routine inspection on May 12th, astronauts noticed damage to one of Canadarm2’s boom segments. The damage, limited to a thermal blanket and part of the arms boom, is not expected to limit the arms operations.
Canadarm2 is a nearly 60-foot robotic arm that has been on the Space Station since 2001. It serves as a vital tool, capable of moving a quarter-million pounds. It is used to assist with the docking of the Cygnus spacecraft as well as the Japanese H-II Transfer Vehicle. It was also used to assist with the docking of SpaceX Dragon vehicles. Regularly being used to assist with spacewalks and the upkeep of the station, its next task is to move the Dextre robot into a location to replace a faulty power switch box.
Debris in space is a growing problem. There are over 27,000 pieces of space junk being tracked by the Space Surveillance Network, run by the Department of Defense. There is also a countless amount of debris too small to be tracked. With the International Space Station moving at nearly 5 miles per second, even extremely small pieces of debris can cause plenty of damage. During the first attempt of the Atlas V launch SBIRS GEO-5 we saw a change in launch time to avoid the risk of collision with an object already in orbit.
A growing number of satellite constellations, such as Starlink, OneWeb, as well as Amazon’s planned Project Kuiper raise increased concern over cascading collisions of satellites. In this theoretical scenario, known as the Kessler syndrome, the debris from one satellite collision would lead to more collisions creating a cascading effect. Thankfully, many of these satellites feature collision avoidance systems, but this cannot entirely reduce the risk of collision. Recently, a Starlink and OneWeb satellite came within 190 feet of each other, and these avoidance systems can’t prevent collisions with untracked debris below a certain size.
Fortunately, the small piece of debris that struck that the Canadarm2 did not cause a great deal of damage. The Space Station remains in operation and the strike caused no danger to the crew. The Station regularly makes avoidance maneuvers, even if the risk of collision is low, making 3 avoidance maneuvers in 2020. While no lasting harm was caused today, more work needs to but put into keeping space clean to ensure that it can continue to be safely explored for generations to come.
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