The space shuttle and the planned international space station will face a growing risk from orbiting debris traveling thousands of miles an hour, a panel of experts says.
In a report released Tuesday by the National Research Council, the committee recommended that NASA strengthen shielding in parts of the space shuttle.
NASA is taking steps to protect the shuttle from orbital debris such as spent rocket bodies, satellite fragments and paint chips, said Frederick Hauck, who heads the NRC committee. But he said the agency “needs to obtain a more precise picture of the potential dangers and assess additional methods for reducing these threats.”
Orbital travel is at such high speeds that even very small objects can put huge dents in the space shuttle. Large objects could punch through the craft, even penetrating the crew compartment and causing a decompression, said the NRC report.
With more space launches, by both NASA and by other countries, in the coming decades, there is expected to be more orbital debris posing a risk to spacecraft operating in in low Earth orbit.
NASA’s space shuttle fleet already has sustained a number of dents and chips from orbiting debris, but there have been no collisions causing serious damage.
The risks in space include garbage left in orbit from rocket launches, abandoned satellites and the pieces of shattered spacecraft. The space shuttle is also at risk of being hit by meteorites from outer space. Collision velocities with space garbage can be as high as 22,000 mph, while meteorites could smash the shuttle at speeds of up to 150,000 mph.
At such speeds, the committee said, objects only a few inches in size can buckle structural beams and send a damaging shock wave through the whole craft. A large object hitting the pressurized crew cabin could cause an intense flash of light, a decrease in pressure and a rapid internal fog, the report said. Eventually, the cabin would lose its air.
The experts said that the risk of orbital collision will increase after the international space station is constructed.
The shuttle will dock at the station for long periods and be positioned in such a way that it would be more exposed to space debris, the panel said.