May 7, 2021

From the Vaults: Space Junk


     Being too young to notice such things at the time, the debut of the Earth’s first artificial satellite (Sputnik, launched on October 4, 1957) did not get me interested in space.  The ‘space spark’ was struck by a trip outside with my brother Ron to view Project Echo (the first of two identical satellites was launched on August 12, 1960).  The hundred foot diameter silver metallic ‘balloon’ was inflated in orbit and it wasn’t hard to pick out as it passed overhead.  There were few such objects orbiting the Earth at that time (if any), so all we had to do was look up and wait for it to make its pass.  From that point on, anytime there was a televised space launch, yours truly was in front of the nearest TV watching the meager coverage.  I say ‘meager’ only because the resources to do the 24 hour surveillance that is the norm for space aficionados these days (via webcams and satellite feeds) hadn’t been invented yet.  The ‘Space Junk’ title has a double meaning here because this FTV will be about general space ‘junk’ as well as ‘junk in space’, so bear with me.  This is not designed to be a comprehensive look at the history of space flight.  We will narrow the focus here to things currently going on with groups working just a few of the new space related projects.

     The term ‘space tourism’ has been knocking around for quite a while.  There are two companies leading the charge here:  Virgin Galactic headed by Richard Branson and Blue Origin, the brainchild of Jeff Bezos.  Both have invested profits from their successful businesses into the research and development necessary for ‘common’ people to earn their astronaut wings.  To get ones wings, one must find a ride above the Karman Line, the recognized dividing line between the Earth’s atmosphere and outer space.  The 100 km, 62 mile altitude is the recognized boundary set by the Federation Aeronautique Internationale or FAI (my French is a bit rusty but this no doubt translates to something pretty close to the International Aeronautical Federation).  It is named after the Hungarian-American mathematician, aerospace engineer, and physicist Theodore von Karman (1881-1963).  The CalTech professor first proposed marking a dividing line above which the atmosphere would be too thin to provide normal aeronautic lift.  We should note that both the US Military and NASA recognize a 50 mile altitude for the boundary, but both Branson and Bezos are going with the international standard.

     Virgin Galactic’s goal is not to orbit the Earth.  The plan is to release a rocket propelled space plane dropped from the belly of a carrier aircraft to reach space.  The passengers aboard SpaceShip Two will get a 90 minute ride after being released from the White Knight Two mothership.  They will earn their wings during six minutes of ‘weightlessness’ as they reach the top arc of the flight.  A unique ‘feathering’ technique will be used during the craft’s descent.  The dual tail assembly will be angled up, providing drag to slow SpaceShip Two (similar to how the feathers on a badminton shuttlecock work).  At a lower altitude, the wing and tail will pivot back to the normal position for a final glider-like landing.  Each flight will include two pilots and six paying passengers (at $250,000 a pop), but as of 2021, there have been no commercial flights taken.  Virgin Galactic was formed in 2004 with hopes of flights as soon as 2009, but technical difficulties have obviously held them back from their initial goal for over a decade.  Branson himself has said a highlight reel of him predicting ‘we will be in space by’ statements would be rather annoying, yet amusing.

     Amazon’s Jeff Bezos founded his aerospace company in 2000 and Blue Origin is working with a more traditional rocket-capsule design.  Similar to the Mercury-Gemini-Apollo rockets employed by NASA in the 1960s and 1970s, the difference is found in the reusability of Blue Origin’s booster rocket and crew capsule.  The New Shepard rocket booster returns to Earth and lands in a vertical position to be refurbished and flown again.  After the crew capsule has taken its jaunt over the Karman Line, it returns to the ground via three parachutes and a last second blast of compressed gas to cushion the final touchdown.  Both Virgin Galactic and Blue Origin are counting on keeping costs as low as possible with quick turnarounds between flights and the reusability of the main components.  There is a growing list of well to do folks with the resources needed to plunk down the hefty deposit to reserve a flight.  It is a little misleading to say that this form of space tourism will be available for those of us ‘common’ folks with more modest incomes.

     The king of the new space party is undoubtedly Elon Musk whose SpaceX brand is expanding on several fronts.  Once Musk’s business fortunes made him one of the wealthiest men on this planet, he set his sights on conquering space (and the electric car market with Tesla).  SpaceX got off to a slow start but they can be forgiven for the misteps they encountered developing new rocket motors and reusable booster rockets.  Musk’s vision, however, stretches well beyond mere space tourism.  His Falcon 9 rockets are now considered one of the most reliable systems for delivering satellites, payloads, and people to orbit.  The payloads and people have been delivered to and from the International Space Station (ISS), most recently on April 23 and May 2, 2021 .  The reuse of both a Falcon 9 booster and crew Dragon capsule to ferry four astronauts to the ISS marked two more ‘firsts’ for manned space travel.  Satellites are being lofted into orbit for governments and also for SpaceX’s own internet system known as Starlink.  Hundreds of low orbit Starlink sats are now in  place.  Starlink’s internet capabilities are being tested as Musk seeks a way to bring reliable broadband services to remote areas all across the planet.  If one has noticed what looks like a train of small ‘stars’ crossing the night sky, it was more than likely a group of Starlink satellites that were just released in orbit.  Launched sixty at a time, the Starlink sats travel in a group and are slowly navigated into low Earth orbits.  At last count, there are approximately 1,000 Starlink satellites already in position with more to come.

     Perhaps Musk’s most ambitious SpaceX project, Starship, is being developed at a new facility he is constructing along the Gulf Coast of Texas at Boca Chica.  Musk would like to acquire enough property to turn Boca Chica into ‘Star City’.  This modern day version of the Cape Canaveral space launch facility in Florida (the home to the majority of his Falcon 9 rocket launches and booster recoveries), was originally designed to be the primary Falcon 9 launch site.  In 2018, SpaceX announced the site would instead be used exclusively for the manufacturing, testing, and launch support of the Starship program.  The Starship upper stage is currently undergoing flight testing to perfect the maneuvers it will need to land vertically on return from orbit.  When mated with the Super Heavy booster, it will be capable of hurling large payloads into Earth orbit.  Musk sees this workhorse vehicle as mankind’s ticket to colonizing Mars.  SpaceX has also been picked to develop the next generation of Moon lander for NASA although the decision is currently under review. 

      SpaceX wants their vehicle to be the one humankind uses to expand into a multi-planet species.  The contract for the next generation Moon lander will no doubt aid the SpaceX vision of getting to the Red Planet.  Musk would like to see this Buck Rogers like scenario happen sooner than later while some of his detractors think his aim is a little, ahem, too high.  Other ‘negative Nellies’ opined SpaceX would have gone bust by now.  Maybe Musk will end up to be the richest man on two planets.

     Now that a cottage industry of ‘SpaceX surveillance’ has sprung up around the Boca Chica  facility, one can tune in to a number of sources to keep an eye on their progress.  Unlike the days when I had to wait for the big three TV networks to cover an actual launch, one can take 15 to 25 minute guided tours to monitor daily developments on any computer or phone.  Multiple contributors to the space news site have invested hundreds of thousands of dollars in cameras and streaming rigs to provide this 24/7 coverage which is viewed by millions worldwide.  They aren’t salaried employees, but a few are making a decent living providing content to these sponsored sites.  Los Angeles based photographer Jack Beyer and a local Boca Chica woman named Mary (whose handle is BocaChicaGal) monitor activity at the site using a combination of personal recording devices or remote webcams.  Their daily postings are edited to include subtitles describing the day to day activities during the construction of both the vehicles and the launch-landing site.  The sheer size of the cranes and transporters used to manipulate the Starship, Super Heavy Booster, and Ground Service Equipment (GSE) components can only be described as ‘tinker toys on steroids’.

     The first six mile high ‘hops’ taken by Starship have not ended well, but Musk knew from the beginning SpaceX would break some eggs on the way to making their omelet.  As this is being written, SN15 (Spaceship Serial Number 15) is on the suborbital launch stand waiting for its test flight*.  Improvements in the ship design led SpaceX to scrape the SN 12-14 models, thus making SN11’s March 30, 2021 the most recent test flight.   SN11 followed a now familiar script as it ascended using three powerful Raptor engines that were shut down one at a time as it neared the highest altitude of the flight.  It pitched over to glide back toward Earth using front and aft ‘flaps’ to keep it aligned as it descended.  During the relight of the two engines needed to flip it into a vertical landing mode, it malfunctioned and exploded above the landing pad.  The test was conducted on a foggy morning and the remote cameras only recorded a bright flash above the site and a rain of debris.  Luckily, no major damage was done to the site.

     SN10 succeeded in making a vertical landing, but it touched down a little too hard.  The subsequent damage and engine compartment fire caused a RUD event (a Rapid Unscheduled Disassembly) a few minutes after the engine shutdown.  Both SN9 and SN8 performed their pre-landing flip maneuvers but their speed was too great and both landed in spectacular RUD fireballs.  Musk assures all they are learning what they need to from the data on these test flights and he is fully convinced that the Starship will eventually be as reliable as the Falcon 9 rockets have proven to be.  *The launch and landing of SN15 on May 5 was the most successful to date.  Cloud cover and intermittent webcam dropouts were annoying for the viewers watching online, but the ship did manage the flip and landing sequence without any apparent problems.  Okay, there was the fire that erupted at the base of the Starship as it sat on the landing pad, but it was extinguished and did not end in a RUD event like SN10.

     What motivates Jack Beyer to spend the time and money he does to contribute to  According to Beyer, “I really do believe, not to sound like I have drunk the Kool-aid or anything, but, like, I really do believe that what we are witnessing right now is history in the making. Ten, twenty, thirty years from now, people will look back at this moment in history in the same way that we look back at the beginning of Apollo or the Gemini era.”  Musk is fine with others prospering as they chronicle his efforts.  Elon himself does not spend any money on advertising his company but has mentioned that he often checks out the various feeds when he is not physically at the facility.  Like Beyer, Everyday Astronaut founder Tim Dodd has built a loyal following and funds his efforts through subscriptions and donations from Patreon supporters.

Todd told CNN business, “[Everyday Astronaut] is where every dollar is going.  Scarily, every penny that I’ve ever made is in this right now.”

     The live events are interesting if you are a deep spaceflight geek.  If one does not have three hours to watch LOX vapors stream from Starship while the countdown clock is in a hold, there is a backlog of edited clips from multiple sites one can visit to catch up.  As much as I like watching the action live, waiting for something to happen can be a major time waster.  SpaceX wisely does their due diligence and will not launch a vehicle if there are any glitches.  A launch or test scheduled for one day may not happen until the next day or a week later, making the work of people like Beyers, BocaChicaGal, and Dodd our eyes and ears.  

     SpaceX had recently removed one of Louis Balderas’s high-end security cameras from a property the company had recently acquired.  When this part of the 24/7 livestream Balderas has kept up for more than a year was interrupted, fans of the site took to Twitter.  A frequent Twitter user himself, Musk noticed the uproar and personally intervened.  The SpaceX people had the camera rig replaced and the LabPadre YouTube feed was again streaming its endless picture of the site.  Deep techno geeks had recently learned how to tune into real time data streams from rockets on the way to orbit.  SpaceX is in the running for some potentially sensitive payloads, so these streams are now encrypted.

     Now that we have discussed a few of the current efforts to put things into space, it is only fitting that we take a few minutes to discuss ‘space junk’ (aka space debris, space pollution, space waste, space trash, or space garbage).  Think of the introduction to the Muppets skit ‘Pigs in Space’ and we can all have ‘Junk in Spaaaaace’ now stuck in our heads.  At this moment, NASA is tracking over 20,000 artificial objects in orbit above the Earth.  These include objects that are large enough to track, 2,218 of which are operational satellites.  There are in excess of 128 million pieces of debris smaller than 1 cm (0.4 inches), 900,000 pieces 1-10 cm, and 34,000 pieces larger than 10 cm in size all of which pack quite a wallop if they strike a satellite or manned space capsule traveling at a typical orbital speed of 4.7 miles per second.  Standing in the Smithsonian Air and Space Museum in Washington, D.C. some years ago, it was interesting to see a thick pane of windshield that had been replaced on one of the Space Shuttles.  The pane had a nick in it caused by an encounter with a fleck of paint the shuttle struck in orbit while traveling 17,500 MPH.  Picture the end result if it had been the size of a baseball or basketball.  On their way to the ISS on April 24, the latest SpaceX Crew Dragon had a close encounter with some space junk.  Ground control asked the astronauts don their space suits at 1:30 AM as a precautionary measure.  The object ended up a bit farther away than was first projected, but a buffer of 28 miles is still too close for comfort with a manned vehicle.

     There are several organizations currently working on methods to remove junk from Earth orbit.  It will only get worse if more objects are launched without a plan to remove them from orbit when their useful lifetime has expired.  Countries developing ‘anti-satellite’ systems will add to the clutter if these weapons are tested on actual satellites in orbit.  Accidental collisions (rare, but they do happen) will become more frequent and the amount of debris functioning satellites will have to navigate around will increase.  There have already been multiple occasions when the ISS has had to change its orbit slightly to avoid colliding with orbital debris.  Those engaged in the search for extraterrestrial intelligence point out one way to find other life forms in the cosmos would involve finding evidence of artificial debris orbiting extrasolar planets.  If that is the case, ET may not have any trouble finding us.

     Is space debris something you need to be concerned with?  It does not pose a significant physical threat to anyone on the planet, but what about those who are (or will) travel in space?  What about those of us who rely on satellites for communications, TV, the internet, and the like?  Building in some form of ‘end of life’ plan for orbiting objects needs to become the norm.  As this article is being prepared, a second 22 ton booster from a Chinese rocket launch is tumbling in orbit and parts of it may survive to land somewhere.  Parts from the last one, including a 12 foot log section of pipe, came down in rural Africa.  As we have found with Earth bound pollution, it is always much more expensive to clean up a mess than it is to prevent it in the first place.  We will try to keep you posted with future space junk updates!

Top Piece Video:  From 1972, The Rocket Man himself, Elton John from the Royal Albert Hall