International Space Station

ISS whacked by space junk as ESA warns the problem is getting worse

Image credit: Pixabay

The International Space Station (ISS) has been hit by a piece of space junk which has taken a chunk out of its 17m-long robotic arm.

Over 23,000 objects the size of a tennis ball or larger are tracked constantly to detect potential collisions with satellites and the ISS, but a larger number of tiny objects - ranging from rock or dust particles to flecks of paint from satellites - are too small to be monitored.

During a routine inspection of Canadarm2 on May 12, a sizable hole was discovered that is believed to have been created by one of these untracked pieces of space debris.

The arm is used by the Station’s inhabitants to perform station maintenance, to move supplies and to grapple with visiting vehicles so they can successfully dock with the ISS. Despite the hole, the arm continues to function within normal parameters, Canada’s space agency confirmed.

“The damage is limited to a small section of the arm boom and thermal blanket. Canadarm2 is continuing to conduct its planned operations,” it said.

The European Space Agency (ESA) recently published a report warning that space debris presents a problem “on a global scale”.

The amount of objects, their combined mass and their combined area has been steadily rising since the beginning of the space age, leading to the appearance of involuntary collisions between operational payloads and space debris, it said.

Newer technologies have allowed space agencies to track ever-smaller particles floating in orbit in recent years, which has further revealed the extent of the problem.

Smaller satellites designed to circle the Earth in a low-Earth orbit are becoming increasingly common, alongside services based on a network of tens or even hundreds of satellites operating in unison such as SpaceX’s Starlink service.

Programmes such as these could worsen the space junk problem, especially if the satellites are not properly expired once they reach the end of their useful life.

ESA noted that operators are increasingly adhering to space debris mitigation measures, with controlled re-entries for low-earth orbit satellites rising from 10 to 40 per cent over the last decade.

“Whereas adoption of, and compliance to, space debris mitigation practices at a global level is noted as slowly increasing, it is of importance to note that the successful implementation is still at too low level to ensure a sustainable environment in the long-run,” ESA said.

In September, the UK allocated £1m to seven firms developing technology designed to remove pre-existing space junk from orbit.

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