Remember the premise of the 2013 movie Gravity? It explained a situation where an increasing amount of space junk causes havoc in Earth orbit, ultimately destroying numerous satellites and giving our heroine, played by Sandra Bullock, a rather tough time.
This latest incident isn’t quite that dramatic, but it gives us a reminder of the problem that space junk could pose. The European Space Agency (ESA) has revealed today that the solar panel of one of its satellites, Copernicus Sentinel-1A, was hit by a small piece of debris on August 23 this year, punching a hole 40 centimeters (16 inches) wide in the panel.
The fragment that hit the solar panel was small, no bigger than a millimeter in size, so the damage is not severe. But it did cause a change in the orientation and orbit of the satellite and a small loss in power, although the spacecraft is still operating normally.
There are more than 100 million objects smaller than a centimeter (0.4 inches) in orbit, but most are too small to be trackable, although we can track larger objects. This makes it difficult to avoid instances like this – and as the amount of space junk increases, they could become more common.
“Such hits, caused by particles of millimeter size, are not unexpected,” said Holger Krag, Head of the Space Debris Office at ESA’s establishment in Darmstadt, Germany, in a statement.
“These very small objects are not trackable from the ground, because only objects greater than about 5 centimeters can usually be tracked and, thus, avoided by maneuvering the satellites.”
At the moment, it’s not clear if this debris was of natural origin or man-made. But, while there have been impacts like this before, it does highlight the growing problem of space junk. We’re a long way from a Kessler Syndrome-like scenario where the amount of space junk spirals out of control, but it’s no surprise that various organizations are looking at ways to clean up debris from orbit.