back to article Space station dumps 2.9-ton battery pack to burn up in Earth's atmosphere after hardware upgrade

The most massive chunk of junk yet was just ejected from the International Space Station – though, don’t worry, the 2.9-ton crate containing old batteries shouldn’t be too much of a nuisance. It is expected to harmlessly burn up in Earth’s atmosphere two to four years from now. Low-earth orbit is getting more and more crowded …

  1. PhilipN Silver badge

    It’s ok we’ve done it before.

    3 tons of it is ok. So my phone battery may be left to decompose in the same Earth’s atmosphere. Got it.

    1. BristolBachelor Gold badge
      Boffin

      Re: It’s ok we’ve done it before.

      If you can fling it at 27500 kph, then it should "decompose" nicely as you say.

      1. This post has been deleted by its author

        1. Anonymous Coward
          Anonymous Coward

          Re: It’s ok we’ve done it before.

          "I was thinking it might have been slightly safer to break them up into their component cells (or at least smaller clusters) and then propel them slightly so they reached the atmosphere sooner. It's only a couple of hundred km to the atmosphere, after all."

          They're already touching enough atmosphere to experience drag (the only have something like 400km to the surface) . Smaller clusters would be harder to track (and may decay slower, idk). Breaking them down is a nontrivial task, especially in orbit, especially if the pack was not explicitly designed for disassembly.

  2. William Higinbotham

    Ooops

    Sorry SpaceX, did we just knock out several of your low orbit satelites and cause interruption with others. Think of it as trickle down theory.

    1. Antron Argaiv Silver badge
      Alert

      Australia?

      Someone should set a timer to remind the Australians to duck in 2-4 years.

      Didn't the remains of Skylab land in the Outback?

      1. Lotaresco

        Re: Australia?

        The lavatory seat landed on Toilet Seat Girl (allegedly).

  3. CrackedNoggin

    Will they disintegrate because the batteries will combust when the hit the atmosphere?

    Apparently, a lot of the Space Shuttle Columbia made it back to earth. For example, some large engines, and

    "The BRIC-14 (moss growth experiment) and BRIC-60 (Caenorhabditis elegans ringworm experiment) samples were found intact in the debris field within a 12 mile radius in east Texas. 80-87% of these live organisms survived the catastrophe. The moss and ringworms experiments' original primary mission was not nominal due to the lack of having the samples immediately after landing in its original state (they were discovered many months after the crash), but these samples helped the scientific community greatly in the field of astrobiology and helped form new theories about microorganisms surviving a long trip in outer space while traveling on meteorites or asteroids."

    1. werdsmith Silver badge

      Large chunks of the Columbia orbiter still had thermal protection material attached and a total mass of over 90,000 kg.

      1. Alan Brown Silver badge

        and it had made it most of the way down before the TPS failed....

        Might be better to look at skylab laftovers

  4. shortfatbaldhairyman

    Pollution?

    What chances that the battery module contains plastic and dioxin (or its relative) gets released into the upper atmosphere? Any analysis of that?

    1. Tom 7 Silver badge

      Re: Pollution?

      I hope they keep a close eye on it - simply so they can give us a warning of when its going to burn up. I could be quite pretty.

      1. Tom 7 Silver badge

        Re: Pollution?

        Sorry about the typo. I'm definitely not pretty - even by the light of several rare earths tearing through the upper atmosphere.

    2. DaveFlagAndTenDigits

      Re: Pollution?

      Pretty sure that at the temperature of re-entry, any dioxin produced won't last very long.

      1. Yet Another Anonymous coward Silver badge

        Re: Pollution?

        >Pretty sure that at the temperature of re-entry, any dioxin produced won't last very long.

        Temperature is only high for the front of solid heavy objects hitting serious ram pressure heating.

        The inside of meteorites arrive at the surface still deeply frozen.

        Gases leaking out of heated batteries and then dispersing into the ultra-rarifed upper atmosphere aren't likely to be affected much. Then worry that chemistry of the upper atmosphere is complicated with very small amounts of some vital molecules spread very thinly.

        Remember it didn't take very much mass of CFCs to destroy a layer of Ozone. You can't just say 'the entire mass of the atmosphere is massive so a few 100kg of X can't do any harm" - and then disperse that X into a very thin layer of upper atmosphere.

        1. LoPath
          Trollface

          Re: Pollution?

          Kinda like mozzarella sticks... If you fry them when thawed, the cheese just oozes out. If you fry them frozen, they get nice and gooey in the middle. :D

          1. Gort99
            Mushroom

            Re: Pollution?

            Why can I imagine Jeff Goldblum using that as a metaphor in a Roland Emmerich film?

    3. HammerOn1024

      Re: Pollution?

      Since the speed of re-entry will destroy the object via heating and plasma decomposition, there won't be anything left but molecular powder at best.

      1. Yet Another Anonymous coward Silver badge

        Re: Pollution?

        >there won't be anything left but molecular powder at best.

        Good job that no chemistry happens in the upper atmosphere then.

    4. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Re: Pollution?

      More likely to release organics like PCBs/dioxins from the pack being burnt, but incineration at re-entry temps will be hot enough to crack most of the toxic species. It's not a controlled environment so I'd expect at least a minor percentage of nasty stuff to get spread in the atmosphere, but it's still the best (or least worst) solution.

      Lifting a re-entry vehicle into orbit to bring back something that weighs 3 tons and then recycle it isn't good math. You are better off not bringing it back and using the resources you'd waste cleaning up pollution somewhere else(like the local landfill or trash incinerator). Doubly so if it's burning UDMH and NTO to do it. Spread out through the atmosphere it's hardly going to make a blip. If the batteries were made from pure Sr-90 I'd have a very different take, but they aren't. If fact the NI-H2 cells are made up by mass from stuff that is fairly innocuous, eg Metal, metallic hydroxides, etc.

      Wouldn't loose too much sleep over this one. A lot more of worse things will have burned up in the atmosphere due to natural dust and meteor activity in the next 4 years.

  5. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    Hypocrisy

    ... but your delinquent kid drops an apple core out of the car window and you never hear the end of it.

    1. jmch Silver badge
      Flame

      Re: Hypocrisy

      "apple core out of the car window... "

      ...not a problem at all, as long as it's tosssd into a grass verge / ditch etc where it can nicely biodegrade.

      OTOH, the number of people I've seen throw cigarette butts and other actual rubbish straight out of the car window.... GRRRRR

      1. Refugee from Windows
        Happy

        Re: Hypocrisy

        Degrade? Do look out for all the blossom on the roadside apple trees over the next few weeks.

        1. Tom 7 Silver badge

          Re: Hypocrisy

          And that is a problem how?

          1. DS999 Silver badge

            Re: Hypocrisy

            Because when that delinquent kid is old enough to drive and slides off the road, his injuries will be greater from hitting the apple tree than just simply going into a roadside ditch? Oh wait, that's karma...nevermind!

            1. very angry man

              Re: Hypocrisy

              Because, the local council got a "donation" from food supply chains to remove ALL fruiting trees from govt land to force locals who have harvested fruit from "common land" for ever to have to purchase said fruit in a much less fresh condition from said supermarkets.

              1. Intractable Potsherd

                Re: Hypocrisy

                The UK has very few roadside fruit trees compared to countries in mainland Europe. Many's the time I've harvested dessert from common-use trees and bushes when away.

              2. Antron Argaiv Silver badge
                Thumb Up

                Re: Hypocrisy

                We have wild blueberries and blackberries near us. New roads, so post leaded gasoline.

                Somehow they always taste better than the store bought versions (but you do need to pick a lot more of them!).

                1. Missing Semicolon Silver badge

                  Re: Hypocrisy

                  There's a park in Lowton that has many verdant apple trees. The result of walkers flinging their cores into the bushes.

                  There's some nice varieties there.

  6. deadlockvictim

    Rare Earths

    This sort of equipment usually contains lots of rare earths. Why is this being taken back down with whatever vessel (is it still Soyuz?) brings up material & people to the ISS?

    1. Filippo Silver badge

      Re: Rare Earths

      The cost of such an operation would be greater than the value of any recovered components, probably by several orders of magnitude.

      1. Mage Silver badge

        Re: Rare Earths

        so just leave it in the battery recycle box at the nearest supermarket.

        1. The Oncoming Scorn Silver badge
          Boffin

          Re: Rare Earths

          Well if they aim it right.....

    2. Richard 12 Silver badge
      Flame

      There's nothing to put it in.

      Soyuz can land three humanoids and 150kg.

      Cargo Dragon is currently the only vehicle capable of bringing large items back down in one piece. Its total payload return capacity is 3000kg, - but it has to fit through the hatch.

      So they could perhaps bring it down if they brought it into a pressurised part of the station, dismantled it, and used almost the entire return capacity of a Cargo Dragon.

      That's three very big nopes. Simply bringing it into a pressurised environment could cause it to catch fire...

      1. Alan Brown Silver badge

        Re: There's nothing to put it in.

        Shove the garbage in the trunk - which is done already. That's jettisoned just before reentry

        All the small stuff is already disposed of this way because dumping small items would be an untrackable debris hazard

        This pallet is big enough to track - and despite taking a couple of years to come down it's still unlikely to cause anyone to need to manouevre to dodge it

        It'd be nice to have a "stick on" cubesat and ion drive to deorbit sich things faster though

        1. Keven E

          Re: There's nothing to put it in.

          "...to deorbit sich things faster though"

          It does make me wonder why it takes so long to deorbit. Are they just conjuring up some work to do for a family member for a coupla years? Can't you *shoot the thing a little more directly and burn it up a little faster?

      2. deadlockvictim

        Re: There's nothing to put it in.

        Thanks every one for your replies. I was sure that there was an obvious answer.

    3. Alan Brown Silver badge

      Re: Rare Earths

      "Why is this being taken back down...."

      because rare earths, aren't

      Nor are they particularly valuable or even hard to extract - the problem with rare earth mining is the amount of THORIUM that piles up - If Nixon hadn't killed ORL MSRE further development proposals in 1972 these would be thorium mines with a rare earth side gig

      (Reminder: MSRE (salt loop) is not MSR (sodium loop). Salts don't burn easily and don't go far if they cool (and these ones don't mix with water). Getting water out of nuclear power would have been a Nucomen-->Diesel engine change and moving to thorium divorces nuclear power from dependence on weaponsmaking - 3% fuel is a byproduct of bombmaking, where what the warmongers WANT is depleted uranium to make bomb-grade plutonium and H-bomb casings out of. (All those protests around nuclear plant gates miss the real villain in the piece - that the weaponisation already happened before the reactor was even fired up)

    4. Mike Richards

      Re: Rare Earths

      As mentioned, Soyuz doesn't have enough payload to return the batteries to Earth - even if you could get them through the hatch.

      This disposal was actually caused by a series of events going back to the 2018 failed Soyuz launch which saw three cosmonauts make an emergency abort. That led to a series of delays to spacewalks replacing nickel batteries with lithium batteries.

      Meanwhile, Japan had been delivering shiny new batteries on a series of HTV cargo vessels with the old batteries being put on the vessels and allowed to burn up when they re-entered. Japan is currently building the HTV-X which isn't ready for flight so there is a gap in available vehicles going for disposal, so they chucked these batteries over the side.

      1. hoola Silver badge

        Re: Rare Earths

        I thought that when dismantling things the regular disk cutter, large hammer and crowbar is the normal way to make things smaller so they will go through the hatch, into the boot or out the door.

        Ah that is it, they cannot swing the hammer hard enough up there.........

  7. sgp

    extravehicular activities

    How American!

  8. IanRS

    A lot of delta-V

    I wonder if the ejection of large items is aimed and timed in order to provide a useful orbit correction.

  9. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    Assumption on re-entry...

    Assuming the cargo containers that routinely get burned up have some fuel left to de-orbit, why didn't they attach the pallet to the next container and accelerate the de-orbit...?

    Appreciate it would require some kind of rigid custom bracket to send up first (thrust line, centre of gravity, etc, etc)...

    Or do the cargo containers also take a long time to de-orbit...?

    On that topic, how about a clockwork lightsail that would unfurl during half of every orbit to increase drag...? Even if that made the orbit elliptical, it could touch the high atmosphere earlier...

    Just thinking aloud and realising I don't have a clue or the time to take up KSP...!

    1. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Re: Assumption on re-entry...

      "Even if that made the orbit elliptical, it could touch the high atmosphere earlier..."

      It already is touching the atmosphere. ISS loses something like 2km of altitude per month due to atmospheric drag. That's a decent chunk when you're orbiting at 400km.

      1. Robert Carnegie Silver badge

        Re: Assumption on re-entry...

        Yeah, I gather on some or all visits by rockets, pushing the iSS up again is one of the jobs.

  10. Blofeld's Cat
    Coat

    Hmm ...

    I will be very impressed if they manage to land* it in that overflowing recycling tube inside Sainsburys, with the AA and AAA batteries.

    * For certain values of "land"

  11. 0laf

    Ballistics Officer

    That's a job title I want.

    I thought they were just called "Gunners" in the old days

    1. Ochib

      Re: Ballistics Officer

      This, recruits, is a 20-kilo ferrous slug. Feel the weight! Every five seconds, the main gun of an Everest-class Dreadnought accelerates one to 1.3 percent of light speed. It impacts with the force of a 38-kiloton bomb. That is three times the yield of the city buster dropped on Hiroshima back on Earth.

      That means: Sir Isaac Newton is the deadliest son-of-a-bitch in space! (...) I dare to assume you ignorant jackasses know that space is empty! Once you fire this hunk of metal, it keeps going 'till it hits something! That can be a ship, or the planet behind that ship.

      It might go off into deep space and hit somebody else in ten thousand years. If you pull the trigger on this, you are ruining someone's day, somewhere and sometime!"

      1. arachnoid2

        Re: Ballistics Officer

        See that had me wondering about Star Trek firing all those lasers at each other.At what point does the laser stop if it misses a target ?

        1. Richard 12 Silver badge
          Boffin

          Re: Ballistics Officer

          At the edge of the frame, naturally XD

          Any directed-energy weapon widens and becomes mostly harmless once sufficiently far away, as the intent will be to focus onto the smallest possible point at the enemy shield or hull, while being produced over the largest possible area of your own vessel so you don't melt yourself while vapourising the enemy.

    2. Sean o' bhaile na gleann

      Re: Ballistics Officer

      An uncle of mine was in the Royal Artillery back in the day.

      He used to refer to himself as a 'nine-mile sniper'...

      1. Anonymous Coward
        Anonymous Coward

        Re: Ballistics Officer

        Remember kids It's not real ballistics until you have to dope in a correction the Coriolis effect caused by the rotation and shape of the earth.

  12. Grease Monkey Silver badge

    Remember the promises around Skylab when that did it's totally uncontrolled re-entry? No risk at all.

    The size of the chunks that hit the planet would not have been harmless had they impacted in a populated area.

    Given batteries tendency to conflagrate in a totally unpredictable way I don't trust that NASA can predict with certainty what's going to happen. They are probably just working on the same principal as they did with Skylab. If it does rain burning lithium on the earth then the odds of it hitting anybody will be pretty slim.

    1. Alan Brown Silver badge

      "The size of the chunks that hit the planet would not have been harmless had they impacted in a populated area."

      Batteries tend to weigh somewhat less than (and be less robustly built) than a 1.5 ton film safe

      1. sabroni Silver badge
        Boffin

        re: Batteries tend to weigh somewhat less than than a 1.5 ton film safe

        "Space station dumps 2.9-ton battery pack to burn up in Earth's atmosphere after hardware upgrade"

        I know reading the article is a push, but didn't you make it through the headline?

    2. Yet Another Anonymous coward Silver badge

      Ironically the batteries would probably do less damage if they hit the Earth (or at least Australia) intact than they will by disintegrating and doing some unknown chemistry into the upper atmosphere.

  13. Mojave Green
    Meh

    "The ISS is upgrading its battery system, and the old hardware has to be disposed of." Should've added a shed.

    1. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Could just leave it for space gypsies

      1. TeeCee Gold badge
        Alert

        Trouble with that approach is that, if they can be unbolted that easily, they'd have the new ones off the outside of the station as well.

        Also, once you've attracted that attention, there's a bloke on Deimos gives a good price on solar panels and doesn't ask any difficult questions about where you got 'em.

    2. Kevin McMurtrie Silver badge

      The battery cores are inside high pressure hydrogen tanks. I too would give them a good shove when the expiration date comes around.

  14. arachnoid2

    Why not attach a sail or parachute

    To give such large objects more drag and thus bring them down earler?

  15. Binraider Silver badge

    Skylab made it down to Australia, despite assurances of it being "OK". Admittedly modelling today is probably rather more capable. 2 to 4 years is sufficiently uncertain that it could re-enter anywhere, so their calcs that it will actually vapourose better be good!!

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