How many tiny bits of space debris are pummeling the International Space Station day after day? A new experiment headed into orbit this week will find out.
NASA’s Space Debris Sensor is scheduled to launch aboard a SpaceX Dragon cargo capsule on Tuesday (Dec 12). The sensor is designed to gather data on micrometeoroids and pieces of space debris, each about the size of a sand grain — far too small to be tracked from the ground. The sensor will reveal how frequently these bits of material collide with the station, how fast they are moving when they hit and the direction they came from.
While a few grains of sand pelting a window might not pose a threat on Earth, even miniature bits of space debris can be hazardous in orbit. These objects typically move through space at speeds ranging from 6.2 to 8.6 miles per second (10 to 14 kilometers per second), according to Joseph Hamilton, principal investigator for the Space Debris Sensor at NASA. That means the particles carry enough energy to damage satellites or leave small cracks on space station windows. [Space Junk Clean Up: 7 Wild Ways to Destroy Orbital Debris]
“We pay close attention to the risk involved with debris,” Hamilton said during a teleconference on Nov. 29.
The NASA Space Debris Sensor (seen edge-on) before vibration testing.