back to article Space junk damages International Space Station's robot arm

The Canadian Space Agency (CSA) has revealed that a piece of space debris punctured the Canadarm2 robotic arm on the International Space Station (ISS). The second-generation robotic arm, officially titled the Space Station Remote Manipulator System (SSRMS), is still operational but has a punctured thermal blanket and the boom …

  1. mihares

    It’s the SDoS!

    So it seems that humanity will not become a space-dwelling species any time soon: with a couple of apocalyptically idiotic “satellite constellations” (*) underway —most notably yet another of Musk’s brain-dead-children— it’s going to be a few years before space is unreachable and millennia before it’s reachable again.

    It’s the Space DoS and it’s not even clever or ingenious: it’s just junk pile-up.

    (*) Which if by any stroke of luck they won’t self destruct in a massive chain reaction, they at least would make sky observation from the planet’s surface a lot more miserable —and as cool as space telescopes are, ground based ones are the bleeding edge ones.

    1. Flocke Kroes Silver badge

      Re: It’s the SDoS!

      You are ranting about the wrong constellation for Kessler syndrome. Even if you do blow up a Starlink satellite the bits big enough to break up a satellite are most likely to come down before they hit another Starlink. For Kessler you want to be a bit higher up so it takes much longer for the fragments to get back to Earth but not so high up that everything is too spaced out. OneWeb's proposed constellation is in the sweet spot for a cascade. Their satellites are much more shiny and spend more time visible before dawn and after dusk which is the most effective time to ruin astronomical observations.

    2. Persona Silver badge

      Re: It’s the SDoS!

      yet another of Musk’s brain-dead-children— it’s going to be a few years before space is unreachable and millennia before it’s reachable again

      Musk's Starlink constellation is in a low earth orbit where there's a lot atmospheric drag. Those satellites generally start off at an altitude where but for their onboard ion thrusters pushing them to a higher orbit the drag would bring them down in as little as 30 days. In their higher operational orbit they would come down in a couple of years left to their own devices but with the thrusters they will last for 5 years or so before being deorbited.

      They won't be in orbit for millennia. If you stopped launching them they would all be gone by 2030 and probably much much sooner.

      1. The First Dave

        Re: It’s the SDoS!

        That doesn't really alter the underlying point that all this crap is being chucked into orbit with pretty much zero regulation, zero planning, and zero responsibility for the future.

        1. Flocke Kroes Silver badge

          Re: Zeroes

          Depends. Some operators are responsible. You need a radio license to transmit from each country that can receive your signals. For the US, that would be the FCC and they have requirements about planning deorbit and collision avoidance. Other countries vary. If you want the cheepest launches your choices are the US and New Zealand. For the US you need FAA approval and they require a de-orbit plan for within two years of the end of the mission (I expected to see something different for GEO but missed it with only a quick duckduckgo search). Other countries may or may not have requirements but if there is restricted US tech on your satellite you may not be permitted to export for launch from certain countries.

          There is a big legacy problem and piecemeal moves in the right direction. A proper international agreement would be good but the situation is a long way from the wild west.

          1. ThatOne Silver badge
            Unhappy

            Re: Zeroes

            > A proper international agreement would be good but the situation is a long way from the wild west.

            Are you that sure?... I mean you say yourself that regulations vary according to country, and with more and more countries acquiring commercial launch capacities (including some which aren't big on international cooperation), the fact the FCC might have requirements becomes just irrelevant.

            Besides, commercial pressure will eventually lower regulations (even in the USA), as companies in the more regulated countries lose clients to the less regulated ones. As you can't really move launching infrastructure, their best solution will be lobbying to lower the requirements, ideally to the lowest common denominator, and that's where the Wild West comes in...

            I obviously hope I'm wrong, but that's the way greed and the general couldn't-care-less attitude are paving for space in the next decades. Regulations and precautions were acceptable while space was still national prestige projects, but now it's getting commercial, and commercial means profit rules, unchallenged.

            (Didn't downvote you.)

            1. Anonymous Coward
              Anonymous Coward

              Re: Zeroes

              And yet - how many so far died in space, or going to space, or coming back from space, while flying commercial?

              It doesn't seem to me that governments working on national prestige projects were very eager to take all precautions. Being there first at any cost appeared to be rather high on the priority list.

              1. ThatOne Silver badge

                Re: Zeroes

                > It doesn't seem to me that governments working on national prestige projects were very eager to take all precautions

                Well, if you're on the cutting edge there is a chance you might get cut... How many of the early aviation pioneers met an untimely end in the wreck of their contraption?

                I'm not condoning carelessness or anything like that, but all those people knew the risks they were taking, and willingly accepted them.

            2. Yet Another Anonymous coward Silver badge

              Re: Zeroes

              > the fact the FCC might have requirements becomes just irrelevant.

              Unless you want to use US technology, sell to US customers, raise money from US investors, be listed on the US stock exchange or have any of your executives ever visit a US ally without being extraordinarily renditioned.

              If you are China you can probably ignore the rules, if you are a smaller country than China you have to do what Washington says.

              1. DiViDeD

                Re: Zeroes

                If you are China you can probably ignore the rules, if you are a smaller country than China you have to do what Washington says.

                ... unless you align yourself with, say, China?

                1. the hatter

                  Re: Zeroes

                  What would china gain from that ? They don't need anyone else's help, so they don't need to do anyone any favours.

                  1. ThatOne Silver badge
                    Devil

                    Re: Zeroes

                    > What would china gain from that ?

                    Isolate the US a little more? I mean, the USA does a pretty good job at it itself, but the fact is that one's power on the international chessboard depends a lot on who's with you or against you. I mean commercially, although militarily it's the same.

              2. ThatOne Silver badge

                Re: Zeroes

                > Unless you want to use US technology, sell to US customers, raise money from US investors, be listed on the US stock exchange

                And why would you want all that? :-p

                You're assuming one can't do without some US this or that - and yet there are lots of other countries having the technology and the money to send stuff to space. Historically Russia immediately comes to mind, but the EU has a well-oiled space industry too, there is Japan, and China has caught up pretty fast too. None of those I think cares about the FCC.

                As for their executives "being extraordinarily renditioned", sorry, I don't know what that means, but it sounds very aggressive and groundlessly self-confident. The USA are not some mafia boss, and allies are not vassals (normally).

  2. b0llchit Silver badge
    Facepalm

    The irony is that space will become wholly inaccessible to all of us if we do not resolve the space debris problem.

    But that irony is not appreciated by humanity. We, as a species, are very busy to pollute and kill the world we live in. Then we go to space and continue the same behavior and pollute the orbit. Luckily we have not yet managed to go very much farther out. But everywhere humanity goes it seems to leave its garbage.

    We should start by cleaning our local world and learn to leave no junk before we should be allowed to move anywhere else. Maybe humanity needs some alien foster parents to enforce the rules?

    1. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Maybe humanity needs some alien foster parents to enforce the rules?

      Nuke it from orbit, right?

      1. arachnoid2 Bronze badge

        Make it a galactic highway

        1. Anonymous Coward
          Anonymous Coward

          Make it a galactic highway and you'll find trash down the side of the road everywhere.

          1. Dazed and Confused

            ReL Make it a galactic highway and you'll find trash down the side of the road everywhere.

            Maybe what SETI need to do is to scan the sky looking for unspooled cassette tapes, then at least we'd know where the highways were.

        2. Sanguma

          Galactic highway? With galactic highwaymen?

          Shirley you mean hyperspace bypass?

          Come on, what's a galactic highway without a Galactic Turpin?

      2. bombastic bob Silver badge
        Pirate

        Nuke it from orbit, right?

        No just a handful of "happy accidents" when objects too small to be detected (and leave a mark suspiciously looking like a bullet hole) "accidentally" strike the objects of interest and "accidentally" drive them into a safe LEO trajectory that decays into a safe splashdown someplace where no further accidents can happen...

        (because knocking things into a higher orbit at escape velocity would be too difficult, and blowing them up makes even MORE dangerous space debris)

        "Hey derelict space junk, come check out this view, right next to this open 3rd floor window."

      3. adrianrf

        It's the only way to be sure…

    2. lglethal Silver badge
      Trollface

      But how else are we supposed to let future Archaeologists determine how we lived, if we dont leave them our garbage piles to go rifling through??? I mean the romans were nice enough to leave their garbage pits lying around the place - how else do you think we know so much about them?

      1. b0llchit Silver badge
        Joke

        You mean, those future (alien) archeologists and anthropologists? They already know the result: Mostly harmless.

        1. Julz Silver badge

          I thought it was amused to death.

    3. Mike 137 Silver badge

      everywhere humanity goes it seems to leave its garbage

      "everywhere humanity goes it seems to leave its garbage"

      Everywhere every living thing goes it leaves its garbage, but almost all of it decays naturally, usually providing an energy resource for a lower form of life. The primary differentiators of the human species are that [a] its garbage is rather durable, [b] too many of us are leaving too much of it at too high a rate, and [c] for all the hype we're still pretty poor at recycling.

      Two facts were reported a few years back by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation: that 40% of the world's humans still live on less than $2 a day, and that the other 60% are consuming the Earth's resources at a rate that's 30% above the long term sustainable level. In practice, we're extracting resources from concentrated deposits, using them, and then disposing of them is a thin widely distributed form that pretty much renders their recovery impractical. The space junk problem is merely another symptom of a general behaviour that will ultimately be self limiting unless we wake up sooner and change our ways.

      1. bombastic bob Silver badge
        Meh

        Re: everywhere humanity goes it seems to leave its garbage

        unless we wake up sooner and change our ways.

        to what, exactly... living in poverty on $2 a day? I don't THINK so...

        (personally I make very little non-recyclable trash and nearly everything goes into the blue recycle can. what little is left over goes into a land fill along with everything else, and then houses are built on top of it when it gets full enough)

        1. Giles C Silver badge

          Re: everywhere humanity goes it seems to leave its garbage

          I just had the black (non recycled) bin collected yesterday. Just 1 carrier bag sized quantity.

          The recycling bin will be 80% full when that is collected next week.

          There are people near me where the black bins are overflowing every week, so some people are making a lot more than me,

    4. HildyJ Silver badge
      Facepalm

      Junk

      As far as first world humanity is concerned Junk in Spaaaaace makes headlines and Junk on Earth (not pollution or climate change, just junk) doesn't.

  3. Potemkine! Silver badge

    What about making decomissionning of satellites internationally mandatory by sending them back to Earth for destruction in the atmosphere? No more junk left 'rotting' in space: operators would have to let some fuel aboard to remove the satellite, or to pay another operator to bring it down with an additional booster.

    1. Anonymous Coward Silver badge

      You'll need to clearly define 'satellite' in that context though.

      Should NASA be forced to return the Voyager craft to Earth to avoid polluting intergalactic space??

      1. Graham Dawson Silver badge

        The moon is a satellite of earth.

        She's also a somewhat overbearing madam.

        1. Yet Another Anonymous coward Silver badge

          >She's also a somewhat overbearing madam.

          That's rather harsh miss

      2. Annihilator Silver badge

        "A satellite is a moon, planet or machine that orbits a planet or star"

        Voyager's not orbiting anything...

        1. the hatter

          Except the galactic centre.

          1. Annihilator Silver badge

            Fair point, not sure anyone has considered referencing everything in the solar system as a satellite of Sagittarius A* though.

    2. lglethal Silver badge
      Go

      There are already plenty of things being pushed (primarily by ESA) in this direction. Various devices for use even on small cube sats (which dont carry any fuel, so cant be de-orbited by the standard method) are being investigated and tested. Rules for bigger satellites to make sure they either de-orbit or push further out into graveyard orbits are being put in place.

      However, the problem is :

      a) other nations not signing up to these sorts of rules (usually because its expensive, but sometimes because they dont want what they send up coming back down and potentially surviving entry and being picked up by someone else, or simply they dont want to add burdens to potential customers and potentially drive them to other rocket launch suppliers (who dont impose additional burdens on them); and

      b) the bigger problem, there is already so much shite up in space that is hundreds of years away from de-orbiting on its own. There's a lot of old booster upper stages, there's a lot of old satellites, and there's a ton of debris caused by both the Chinese anti-satellite missile test which destroyed a satellite in 2007, and the collision between the Iridium and the Kosmos satellites back in 2009.

      Trying not to add more debris up there, and taking away what you bring with you (de-orbiting) is great, but at the moment, the situation is akin to having a picnic in a garbage dump. Just because you're trying not to add to the pile, doesnt mean your chosen picnic spot is going to suddenly become a childrens playground...

      1. Claptrap314 Silver badge

        That "garbage dump" has less trash per square meter than your average city park.

        You are "directionally correct", but the amplitude of your analogy is WAAAYYY off.

      2. This post has been deleted by its author

    3. imanidiot Silver badge

      How is this going to be enforced? Where do you draw the limit? Constellations like starlink and some other satellites operate at an altitude where they'll re-enter in months at most. Re-entering geostationary satellites would be a giant drain on resources to the point geo satellites would be uneconomical as they'd have to consist mostly of fuel (they normally get moved to a parking orbit above geostationary where they'll stay out of the way for hundreds if not thousands of years)

      1. bombastic bob Silver badge
        Pirate

        the laws of the open sea used to include salvage rights for derelict ships, no matter what flag they once flew. In space, it can be the same...

        THEN, if salvage bots cruised around looking for "dangerous" objects, and either collected them (for salvage) or simply de-orbited them (for safety), it'd eventually clean a lot of it up.

        Insurance companies and underwriters would definitely be interested in this.

    4. Pascal Monett Silver badge

      There's also the issue that, even if all countries would agree to sign up for mandatory de-orbiting of end-of-use satellites, there's still the chance that a satellite gets damaged by an impactor and can no longer be de-orbited.

      Back to square one on that.

      1. Claptrap314 Silver badge

        But it does put the vector firmly in the correct direction. No open system can be completely safed.

    5. cray74

      What about making decomissionning of satellites internationally mandatory by sending them back to Earth for destruction in the atmosphere?

      The major sources of artificial debris in space are less satellites and more upper stages. Low orbit satellites (those under 800km altitude) tend to clean themselves up with atmospheric drag within a few decades, if not a few months (under 400km) after running out of station keeping fuel. High orbit satellites (e.g., geosynchronous satellites) are moving much more slowly and generate less debris in collisions.

      That leaves upper stages, particularly those that lobbed satellites into highly elliptical geosynchronous transfer orbits. These orbits do spend a fraction of their orbit screaming through crowded low altitude bands but not for long enough to experience much drag. Their residual fuel and aging batteries tend to explode after several decades in orbit.

      Based on those points, most responsible satellite operators are finally taking steps to clean up space. The techniques utilized include:

      1. Reserving some fuel for end of life de-orbiting of low altitude satellites. (Starlink had to demonstrate that 95%+ of its satellites would de-orbit under control at their end of life. If not, they're in low orbits that'll decay shortly.)

      2. Now reserving some fuel for end of life boosts to graveyard orbits for high altitude satellites. (It takes a ridiculous amount of fuel to get from geosynchronous orbit to Earth's atmosphere, more than to go from geosynchronous to the moon. Most geosynchronous satellites are cash cows that try to use every available drop of fuel to hold station, so operators don't like saving lots of fuel for big maneuvers. Compromise: kick upward to a graveyard orbit, which requires little fuel.)

      3. Reserving some upper stage fuel for a de-orbit burn, or at least arranging a perigee at an altitude that will decay quickly. SpaceX usually utilizes de-orbit burns on its second stages, though sometimes the burn fails.

      4. Hiring a third party to extend satellite life with more fuel including a reserve to retire into a graveyard orbit.

      The recent media panic about China's out of control upper stage de-orbiting was amusing considering just weeks earlier the panic had been about space debris. That behemoth would've been a large debris generator if left in orbit but, being a lightweight rocket stage, it burned up thoroughly on reentry and only weeks after being launched.

    6. jdiebdhidbsusbvwbsidnsoskebid Bronze badge

      There already are agreements etc. to decommission old satellites. The problem is they don't carry much weight and are impossible to enforce.

  4. Neil Barnes Silver badge

    the robot arm’s performance is unaffected.

    Perhaps, but a couple of feet to one side would have been a strike on the joint... and how far before it would have left a hole for the vacuum to get into somewhere important?

    1. 0laf

      Re: the robot arm’s performance is unaffected.

      They were lucky that no cabling was cut I guess. I assume that patching / soldering in space isn't easy

    2. imanidiot Silver badge

      Re: the robot arm’s performance is unaffected.

      The ISS itself has far better debris shielding and an impact there would likely have been equally uneventful. Canadarm is basically unshielded in that regard (only thermal blankets) as it's original design parameters were that it would be shielded inside the Space Shuttle cargo bay most of the time and only deployed "in harms way" for limited time.

      It would have been vastly more dangerous if something like this happens while one of the astronauts is outside of the station on EVA..

      1. Anonymous Coward
        Anonymous Coward

        Re: the robot arm’s performance is unaffected.

        That's what I was thinking. At the velocity debris can travel it would be the kinetic equivalent of a bullet, with equally devastating consequences. Worse, there's really no way to preditc or prevent this.

        It remains risky up there, my respect for the people up there right now.

    3. Fonant
      Happy

      Re: the robot arm’s performance is unaffected.

      The vacuum getting in isn't a problem at all.

      The problem is non-vacuum stuff getting out.

  5. wolfetone Silver badge
    Coat

    CSA goes all Monty Python

    Tis but a scratch!

    1. Julz Silver badge

      Re: CSA goes all Monty Python

      Ni.

      1. Anonymous Coward
        Anonymous Coward

        Re: CSA goes all Monty Python

        They’ll be wanting a schwubbery up there next.

    2. My other car WAS an IAV Stryker Silver badge

      Re: CSA goes all Monty Python

      Good thing this line in that same scene didn't come true:

      "A flesh wound?! Yer arm's off!"

  6. Julz Silver badge

    How

    Do we know it was our space junk? Could have been the junk left over from the construction of the pretty circulating balls of stuff.

    1. Pascal Monett Silver badge

      Re: How

      Well I think it is safe to assume that, given the amount of junk we are responsible for having put up there, there's a good chance that the impactor was our fault.

      Tiny rocks do travel in space, obviously, but they tend to come in swarms and are generally accompanied by bigger rocks that astronomers can find and track.

      But, in the absolute, statistically speaking, yes, it could have been a very small meteorite on its way to Earth's atmosphere.

      1. Annihilator Silver badge

        Re: How

        I think you underestimate how much rocky and dusty crap there is out there, not necessarily orbiting earth. Literally tons of material falls to earth each day (around 50,000kg) and is predominantly untrackable. We've just passed through the Eta Aquarids in May, which we do every year - it's when we pass through the path of Halley's Comet.

  7. Lon24 Silver badge

    Reg's standards have slipped again!

    "astroboffins currently track over 23,000 pieces of low Earth orbit junk that is softball sized"

    Is that larger or smaller than Wales please?

    1. Neil Barnes Silver badge

      Re: Reg's standards have slipped again!

      Bother the whales - will nobody think of the petunias?

    2. Annihilator Silver badge
      Joke

      Re: Reg's standards have slipped again!

      Wales is an area, not a volume, you fool.

      The Reg standard for volume would dictate that it's around 23,000 grapefruit-sized objects. I'm not sure when standards started to slip around here.

      1. Yet Another Anonymous coward Silver badge

        Re: Reg's standards have slipped again!

        >Wales is an area, not a volume, you fool.

        So the volume of a spherical wales is 4/3pi ?

        Obviously the name of a pie 4/3 the size of Wales, and so the name of the el'reg massive volume unit, should be the Wigan

  8. ThatOne Silver badge
    Joke

    Why the drama?

    It gave the ISS a shot in the arm that's all.

    1. Jim Mitchell
      Boffin

      Re: Why the drama?

      So a second puncture is due in two weeks from this one?

      1. Chris G Silver badge

        Re: Why the drama?

        So after the second shot will it develop some level of immunity to further impacts?

  9. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    "So to remove a dead satellite – or any part of it – from orbit, you need to find this State and get their permission. Depending on the State and the purpose of the satellite, this permission may not be forthcoming."

    I call BS on that, and I ask for a second opinion.

    Removing a whole satellite from orbit, whether it works or not - ok, you obviously need permission. But a pebble-sized debris? Somebody here is keen to sell his (expensive, of course) space law punditry and is priming journalists to accept his preposterous assertions.

    Because seriously, since they're not going to have a serial number and they can't be tracked, the article says so, who exactly is going to complain that their useless pebble has been removed from the sky?

    1. John Brown (no body) Silver badge
      Joke

      "who exactly is going to complain that their useless pebble has been removed from the sky?"

      Isaac Asimov might :-)

  10. Annihilator Silver badge

    Satellites and the like aren't the problem though are they? It wasn't even a Starlink constellation that flew through Canadarm, it was probably a fleck of paint. All of the space-junk collection proposals I've seen don't cater for those.

    1. Def Silver badge

      Which then begs the question: Why is any of this shit painted in the first place?

      1. Yet Another Anonymous coward Silver badge

        >Why is any of this shit painted in the first place

        You ever tried putting up wallpaper in zero gravity ?

        1. Neil Barnes Silver badge
          Coffee/keyboard

          That'll be one keyboard you owe me :)

        2. Androgynous Cupboard Silver badge

          Removing it is even worse

          In space no-one can peel with steam.

      2. John Brown (no body) Silver badge

        National prestige and patriotism, and now, with commercial launchers, sponsors logos.

  11. anothercynic Silver badge

    Yeah...

    ... If this dumping of garbage (of various sizes and shapes) in orbit continues, there won't be any interplanetary launches without concerns of damage to the launchers. As much as someone else pointed out that maybe, just maybe this could have been a tiny meteorite, not human-made space debris, the chances are more likely it was some rubbish we left up there. And if the ISS at 350 km above the planet is subject to rubbish damaging it, it's high time we start cleaning up things. Of course it'll cost an arm and a leg, like so many other cleanups (nuclear, industrial, petrochemical...) that damaged nature, so it'll be deprioritised until it really causes a problem and everyone wrings their hands again over it.

    Plus ça change, plus c'est la même chose.

  12. Winkypop Silver badge

    Machine that goes Ping!

    I’ll bet the Canadaarm said “sorry” afterwards…

  13. Conundrum1885

    Debris

    Two nations have carried out ASAT tests, both releasing debris clouds.

    Unfortunately the damage is impossible to determine but had dangerous trajectories.

    It could be that this particular piece originated here.

  14. Sanguma

    Have I got a treat for ewe!!! Baaaaah!!!!!!

    This is what an Orbital Salvage Treaty should look like. If you like it, pester your local MP or Congresscritter to get it discussed amongst the professional chatterers in the national echo chamber. Share and Enjoy! But have fun! Are we there yet?

    The States Parties to this Treaty

    Aware that the Outer Space Treaty does not cover all eventualities in Earth Orbit,

    Aware of the risk of Earth Orbit becoming closed off to new satellites entering it due to space debris,

    Well aware of the impossibilities posed by a legal regime that declares a space object the inalienable property of its launching state, particularly when said space object has suffered a collision with another space object and is now in orbit as a cloud of microscopic debris,

    Wishing to apply the advantages of the universally respected Maritime Salvage regime to Earth Orbit,

    Have agreed on the following:

    Article 1: A derelict satellite is defined as one that does not answer the commands of its manufacturer and/or operator due to unavoidable damage, unavoidable wear-and-tear in the normal run of operations in Earth Orbit, or has used up all its station-keeping propellant. Such satellites shall be regarded as derelict in the same manner as ships regarded as derelict in the sea lanes.

    Article 2: States Parties to this Treaty and to the Convention on the Registration of Space Objects undertake to augment the Registration Convention by also submitting to the UN Secretary General, the details of satellites on their registry that are now derelict.

    Article 3: States Parties to this Treaty undertake to communicate the identities and orbits of satellites on their registry that are now derelict, to the appropriate Orbital Salvage companies.

    etc, etc, etc.

    1. Sanguma

      Re: Have I got a treat for ewe!!! Baaaaah!!!!!!

      Forgot to add, if you're in a country where the language isn't English, by all means translate it and pass it on to your local representatives, whatever they're called.

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