NASA Conducts Study on the Cost and Benefits of Orbital Debris Removal

A recent NASA study suggests that the costs and dangers associated with orbital debris can be decreased by removing it. Orbital debris is an increasing worry for satellite operators. The research offers a thorough cost-benefit analysis of orbital debris repair. It was released by NASA’s Office of Technology, Policy, and Strategy on March 10. The study examined various methods for eliminating both large and tiny debris. In addition, it examined the advantages they gave to satellite operators. This aimed to decrease the need for avoidance maneuvers and prevent satellite losses caused by debris collisions.

Based on the report, some orbital debris removal techniques might pay for themselves in less than ten years. The most efficient methods entailed removing tiny debris between 1 and 10 centimeters in size using ground- and space-based lasers. Both laser technologies would provide benefits that outweigh their expenses within a decade. Other successful strategies included “just-in-time collision avoidance.” This involves deploying rockets or lasers to shove junk away from satellites or other debris in order to prevent collisions. In the worst-case scenario, such methods might only take a few decades to produce net advantages.

According to the report, there could be significant upfront expenses associated with developing and deploying remediation capabilities. Realizing benefits may be delayed. As a result, there may not seem to be enough incentives to take fast action. Larger debris items returning to Earth might reach break-even in as short as 20 to 25 years. Up to a century may be required in the worst possible case. Similar timelines were discovered in the study for a “sweeper” spacecraft that would remove tiny trash.

The impression that such devices could be used as weapons is one issue with employing lasers to clear debris. Nevertheless, the study found that the laser technology for debris-removal lacks sufficient power to be a viable weapon against operational satellites. Perceptions, however, could be more challenging to manage.

Interestingly, the report discovered that today’s costs associated with debris for satellite operators are little. The report’s model, which was restricted to U.S. operators, calculated that these operators’ yearly expenses would be only $58 million, with both military and commercial operational satellites accounting for the majority of this total. The report made the case that remediation strategies like those examined should still be taken into account.

Bhavya Lal, the associate administrator for technology, policy, and strategy at NASA, underlined the importance of evaluating the efficacy of mitigation, tracking, characterization, and remediation in a way that makes it possible to compare risk reduction methods side by side. The most efficient risk reduction portfolio can be understood with the help of such information. Lal stated that prior to beginning a second phase that will enhance the model and integrate even smaller debris, NASA intended to host a roundtable discussion with several stakeholders to seek feedback on the study.

Asteroid Experiences 1 million Kilogram Weight Reduction After Impact with DART Spacecraft

Asteroid Dimorphos, which orbits the larger asteroid Didymos, was successfully redirected in September 2022. This was done by NASA’s Double Asteroid Redirection Test (DART) mission. This feat was truly amazing. Dimorphos’ orbit was altered and became 33 minutes quicker. It was a result of the collision with the DART spacecraft, which was roughly the size of a golf cart. The collision served as an important test of planetary defense. This is because it showed that, if a dangerous asteroid was ever seen traveling toward Earth, a mission to crash into it would probably be able to deflect it away from the planet.

To better understand how the DART spacecraft affected Dimorphos, researchers have been examining the collision and its aftermath. Five papers in the journal Nature contain the findings of their research. One team of researchers matched information about the spacecraft’s route with images of the asteroid’s surface right before impact. Scientists discovered that one of the spacecraft’s solar panels was the first component to make contact with Dimorphos. The spacecraft’s solar panels slammed into a 6.5-meter-wide boulder. A few microseconds later, the spacecraft’s main body slammed into the rocky terrain near the boulder and disintegrated.

From the 4.3-billion-kilogram mass of Dimorphos, the impact displaced at least one million kilograms of rock. Tens of thousands of kilometers of debris formed a tail behind the asteroid. Many telescopes observed the tail change and evolve during the ensuing weeks as a result of the Sun’s beams. Even a second tail was seen by the Hubble Space Telescope, but it vanished 18 days after the collision.

Dimorphos is 151 meters wide and poses no threat to Earth. With the DART mission, NASA aimed to adjust Dimorphos’s orbit. The adjustment would be enough for scientists to notice the changes. These changes would be noticed by tracking the pair’s brightness with ground-based telescopes over time. Pictures captured by DART on September 26, 2022, as it neared Dimorphos showed the asteroid to resemble an egg covered with pebbles. It seems to be a loose pile of debris held together by gravity. Also, DART’s impact probably caused its surface to break dramatically.

The DART mission’s accomplishment shows that humans have the technology to steer potentially harmful asteroids away from Earth. This represents a substantial advancement in planetary defense. It also offers useful data for planned asteroid defense missions. Such missions include the Asteroid Impact Deflection Assessment (AIDA) mission. This mission will involve cooperation between NASA and the European Space Agency.

The DART mission has been a resounding success overall. Also, the information gathered from the collision with Dimorphos will be crucial for further planetary defense study and development. Although the mission was a test, it has shown the effectiveness of our space technologies. In addition, it has proven our capacity to shield our world from prospective asteroid collisions.

World Records Are Being Set By a Self-Flying Helicopter on Mars

Owing to its sparse atmosphere, the Martian environment is extremely difficult to fly in. Oxygen is present in negligible quantities in the atmosphere, which is made up of 95% carbon dioxide. Only 610 pascals, or 0.006% of Earth’s average atmospheric pressure, are present on the planet. Aircraft rotors and lifting wings are consequently much less efficient. One small helicopter, Ingenuity, has managed to overcome these challenges and set numerous world records.

NASA’s Ingenuity accomplished the first controlled flight on Mars in April of 2021. This was accomplished by ascending to 3 meters, hovering for 30 seconds, then landing. It took 39.1 seconds to complete everything. The helicopter made multiple records with its 25th flight a year later, on April 8, 2022. This contains the most recent, farthest trip across the Jezero crater on Mars, which covered a distance of 704 meters. Additionally, it established new records for flying duration (161.3 seconds) and groundspeed (5.5 meters per second). On December 3, 2022, it ascended to its highest point during a single trip. During this period, it ascended to a height of 14 meters above the surface of Mars, its highest point.

Ingenuity is designed to use two carbon-fiber rotors which spin at about 2,400 rpm to provide lift, unlike helicopters that are located on Earth. A conventional helicopter would take five times longer than this. On Mars, however, this only creates enough thrust to raise an aircraft the size of a flour bag.

Ingenuity’s mass is 1.8 kg, however, in Martian gravity, it only weighs 680 g. Ingenuity is built to fly independently utilizing an onboard computer due to the 5–20 minute communication latency between Earth and Mars. All flight plans are carried out by the onboard computer. Before each flight, the Jet Propulsion Laboratory of NASA sent a list of waypoints and landmarks. They are intended to outline the path that Ingenuity must take.

Ingenuity is outfitted with several tools. A navigation camera, a laser range finder, and an inertial measurement unit are among them. These are fed into the onboard computer, enabling it to react to flying conditions in real-time without the need for pre-programmed human input.

Ingenuity’s rotors are susceptible to stopping or losing control because of Mars’s thin air. In order to maintain the stability of the helicopter, the computer must continuously make small control inputs. Software updates and resourceful workarounds were necessary because Ingenuity was initially built to perform brief, straightforward flights over flat terrain. They are intended to protect it because, during its journey, it came across more difficult terrain.

The feasibility of powered flight on Mars was initially a question that dogged the Mars Helicopter project. However, Ingenuity has aced every test, demonstrating that flying through Mars’ thin atmosphere is absolutely possible. The development of future Mars-bound planes will benefit from the lessons learned by Ingenuity, even though it does not include any scientific instruments and cannot reveal much about Mars itself. Its descendants will eventually be able to explore currently inaccessible areas and break even more astounding records.