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Space Dust: Eliminating Orbital Debris

Space Dust: Eliminating Orbital Debris

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Published by Carl Franzen
Paper from Naval Research Laboratory describing method to reduce space junk by launching clouds of dust.
Paper from Naval Research Laboratory describing method to reduce space junk by launching clouds of dust.

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Published by: Carl Franzen on Jun 27, 2012
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02/13/2014

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978-1-4577-0557-1/12/$26.00 ©2012 IEEE
1
Active Debris Removal by Micron-Scale Dust Injection
 
Gurudas GanguliPlasma Phys. Div., Code 6756Naval Research Laboratory,Washington DC 20375-5346202-767-2401gurudas.ganguli@nrl.navy.milChristopher CrabtreePlasma Phys. Div., Code 6756Naval Research Laboratory,Washington DC 20375-5346202-767-6644chris.crabtree@nrl.navy.milLeonid RudakovIcarus Research Inc.P.O. Box 30780Bethesda, MD 20824lrudakov@gmail.comScott ChappieNaval Center for SpaceTech., Code 8232Naval ResearchLaboratory, WashingtonDC 20375-5346202-404-2620scott.chappie@nrl.navy.mil
 Abstract 
 — 
 
In response to the recent National Research Councilreport concerning orbital debris hazards and the NationalAeronautics and Space Administration study suggesting activeremoval of small-scale (1mm – cm) ‘mission-ending’ orbitaldebris, we discuss concepts for small debris eliminationthrough deployment of micron scale dust. Dust, whichnaturally fills the near-earth environment, can be deployedartificially in a narrow altitude band to enhance drag on debrisand force reentry. The injected dust will also reenter theearth’s atmosphere. Orbital and suborbital dust deploymentconcepts for actively removing debris that (i) has uniformlyspread around the earth or (ii) remains localized over a smallvolume, as well as the system risks and their possiblemitigation are discussed.
T
ABLE OF
C
ONTENTS
 1.
 
I
NTRODUCTION
................................................. 1
 
2.
 
S
ALIENT
P
HYSICS
............................................. 2
 
3.
 
U
NIQUENESS
O
F
D
UST
-B
ASED
ARD
 
S
YSTEM
.. 5
 
4.
 
S
YSTEM
ISKS
A
ND
P
OSSIBLE
M
ITIGATION
... 5
 
5.
 
S
UMMARY
......................................................... 7
EFERENCES
......................................................... 7
 
B
IOGRAPHY
.......................................................... 7
 
1.
 
I
NTRODUCTION
 
Hundreds of near-misses occur each year between orbitaldebris and operational satellites [1]. Recently the NationalResearch Council (NRC) conducted an exhaustive study toassess NASA’s meteoroid and orbital debris program [2].The NRC report concludes that we are at the ‘tipping point’which is the threshold for collisional cascade [3]. Once theexponential rise in small debris sets in due to the cascade itwill become increasingly risky to maintain space assets inLow Earth Orbit (LEO) without clearing the debris population. The NASA Orbital Debris Program Office hasdetermined that satellite collisions with small orbital debris,with sizes in 0.5 mm – 1 cm range can be mission-ending[4]. Debris in this scale size is currently impossible to track individually and hence cannot be evaded. In addition, the population of smaller scale debris is orders of magnitudelarger than larger debris. Consequently, the probability of collision of smaller debris with active satellites is proportionately higher. This makes the small scale debris particularly dangerous. The NASA study [4] recommendsthat as the larger debris objects are removed from orbit tostabilize the growth of the mission-ending smaller debris, itis also necessary to simultaneously remove the existingsmaller debris from orbit. We discuss concepts to forcereentry of such small scale orbital debris by deployingmicron scale dust to artificially enhance drag. Weinvestigate the possibility of dust deployment and dragenhancement [5] using dust sizes an order of magnitude below the NASA recognized definition
 
(1 mm) [6] of harmful debris. Both Orbital and Suborbital operationalconcepts for Active Debris Removal (ADR) systems can bedesigned to address this issue of international concern. In both concepts, debris momentum is changed by dust impactsuch that fragmentation and damage to the debris at themacroscopic level does not occur. The sparse nature andsmall magnitude, of the individual dust impacts keeps thegeneral character of an individual debris object unchanged;however, at the microscopic level, a multitude of hypervelocity impacts induce large change in debrismomentum to force reentry.The
 
key physics making these concepts practical is the largedebris momentum change for individual hypervelocityimpacts by a high mass density dust grain. Dusthypervelocity impacts create microcraters on debrissurfaces. Because dust impacts the debris with velocitygreater than the speed of sound in the debris material, a high pressure bow shock is created. High shock pressuresfragment, liquefy, or vaporize material depending on theenergy of the collision. Shock pressure ejects the fragments,liquid, and gas from the microcrater into vacuum as a recoil jet that imparts thrust to the debris mass. The induced thrustis the key feature of the dust based ADR concepts; thedebris momentum change is much larger than that of inelastic or elastic collisions and is not very sensitive toimpact angle. The dust-induced drag force on the debris ismagnified by a factor kappa,
κ 
=
Δ
 p
/
 p
0
, where
Δ
 p
and
p
0
 and are debris momentum change and dust grain momentumrespectively. Hypervelocity impacts by high mass densitymicron-scale dust can make
κ 
>>1. The efficiency andeconomy of the dust based ADR system is directly proportional to 
κ 
. From our study so far, tungsten appears to be a prime candidate for the dust because of its high density(19.3 g/cm
3
), relative abundance, availability in powdered
 
 
2form, and modest cost. However, other dust materials canalso be considered.Two scenarios are discussed. The first is where satellitefragmentation has occurred long ago and the debris hasspread around the earth almost uniformly. This is the moredifficult case since the volume occupied by the debris islarge and filling this entire volume with dust is impractical.To make the procedure practical, we suggest a snow-plow-like technique in which dust fills only a limited range inaltitude (~ 30 – 50 km) and is resident at any particular  point in space for a limited duration. As the dust naturallydescends due to drag, it has a sweeping effect on the debrissituated at altitudes below it. The narrow dust layer alsoallows for maneuvering of active satellites around the layer to avoid any adverse effect of the injected dust for theduration when the dust layer is resident at the satellitealtitude. The second case applies to the immediateaftermath of a fragmentation or removal of larger trackableobjects. This is a relatively easier case since the volume of the debris cluster is small. In addition to lower dust massnecessary for this case, there are other advantages as well.For example, dust can be deployed sub-orbitally so that dustis not injected into the orbit and remains in space for only afew minutes.
2.
 
S
ALIENT
P
HYSICS
 
Consider the case where debris has spread around the earth,as would be within months after satellite fragmentation [7].As shown schematically in Fig. 1a debris is localized between altitudes X
1
and X
2
. We target small debris with ballistic coefficient, defined as the ratio of the debris massto its area,
B
~ 5 kg/m
2
or less. Orbital lifetime of debris can be reduced by lowering the orbit altitudes to X
0,
belowwhich the natural drag will force reentry of the debris withina desired time. Drag enhancement on the debris necessaryfor lowering their orbit altitudes can be achieved byinjecting dust in counter rotating orbits. Due to perturbations caused by the Earth’s irregular gravitationalfield, the debris and dust orbits will precess. However,injection in polar orbits minimizes dust precession. Dustwould distribute over latitude due to spread in the injectionvelocity and form a partial shell slowly expanding inazimuth, as shown in Fig. 1b. Differential precession of debris orbits creates a nearly homogeneous shell with adistribution in right ascension; bringing debris into counter-rotation with dust over time. At a given time half of thedebris population will counter-rotate with the dust orbitswhile crossing the dust shell and experience enhanced drag.The change in debris momentum is the sum of effects fromdust impact and atmospheric drag [8] and may be expressedas;
( )
( )
22
2
 DdddAA Dust Impact  Atmosphere
dV  BnmVvVvdt 
κρ 
=

(1)
where
 B
=
 M 
/
 A
is the ballistic coefficient;
 M 
and
aredebris mass and velocity;
 D
is the coefficient of atmospheric drag;
v
A
is neutral atmosphere velocity;
 ρ 
A
isthe mass density of the atmosphere; and
m
,
v
, and
n
, arethe mass, velocity, and number density of dust grains.
 A
isthe average debris area exposed to dust drag and
 A
represents the characteristic dimension. Since the debrismass
 M 
=
 ρ 
 Al 
, where
 ρ 
 
and
are debris mass density and
x
0
x
1
x
2
δ
R
(a)
dust cloud inpolar orbit
Δ
R
NS
R
x
0
x
1
x
2
δ
R
(a)
dust cloud inpolar orbit
Δ
R
NS
R
 
Figure 1. (a) Meridional view showing debrislocation between altitudes X
1
and X
2
(blue). A dustcloud of thickness
Δ
R is deployed in polar orbit atthe upper edge of the debris band (beige). The dustorbit decays due to natural drag and sweeps thedebris population below it. The descent rates of thedust and debris can be synchronized. Below X
0
 natural atmospheric drag is sufficient to forcedebris reentry. (b) Polar view of debris orbitsspread around the earth (Source: NASA). Partialdust shell in polar orbit is shown schematically inred. White arrows show typical debris orbitswhose Right Ascension of Ascending Node (RAAN)differs by 180 degrees. Half of the debrispopulation counter-rotates with respect to dustwhile crossing the dust shell.
 
 
3thickness,
 B
=
 ρ 
 is independent of the characteristic debrisdimension. Small debris may be a 10 x10 cm broken pieceof aluminum satellite structure ~2 mm thick with
 ρ 
~ 2.7g/cc weighing about 50 g with ~5
 B
kg/m
2
. The kineticenergy of such debris at 10–15 km/s is 2.5–5 MJ, which iscomparable to the explosive power of 1 kg of TNT. Thecollision of a satellite with such small debris could be fataland a source for secondary small debris
 
[5]. Since there areat least an order of magnitude more small debris objectsthan satellites, the collision frequency of small debris with asatellite is proportionately higher than collisions betweensatellites. Thus, even smaller debris population can be asource for collisional cascade or the “Kessler syndrome”[3].The drag magnification factor in Eq. (1) is
(11)
 f 
κ 
=++
, where
 f 
=
 – 
1 implies inelastic collision,
 f 
= 0 implies elasticcollision, and
> 0 implies loss of debris mass as ejectaresulting from hypervelocity impacts. Maximum drag isachieved when the relative velocity between dust and debris,
– 
v
= 2
where
 
~
 
7.5 km/s is the orbital speed. At suchhigh relative speeds the impact of tungsten grains willgenerate Mbar (10
11
Pa) range shock waves in the debris,resulting in evaporation, melting, fragmentation of thedebris material in microcraters, and formation of ejecta fromits surface. This increases the drag force by a factor of 
κ 
.The debris mass that evaporates and melts is
 fm
. Thespecific kinetic energy of tungsten grains at 15 km/s is 110kJ/g. Assuming the debris is aluminum, the specific heat of melting is ~0.35 kJ/g. An ejecta mass of 
300
m
can beformed by melting, corresponding to
 f 
=
 
300 and
κ 
~ 18. Asimilar estimate with 7.5 km/s impact velocity gives
κ 
~ 10.These are representative estimates of the range of possiblevalues of 
κ 
 ,
since micro fragmentation around the micro-crater can lead to additional ejecta mass not considered here.It is necessary to conduct laboratory experiments todetermine accurate values of 
κ 
.Orbital Concept 
At altitudes of 900–1100 km and at higher inclinations,where the debris population is large, atmospheric drag onthe debris is negligible and their orbital lifetime is long. Toreduce their lifetime we artificially enhance the drag on thedebris by dust injection. However, the atmospheric drag on30–70
μ
m diameter dust grains is not negligible, so the dustorbit will naturally decay. The dust orbit decay rate dependson the grain size and mass density (see Eq. (3)) and, to acertain extent, can be controlled. We exploit this byinjecting a narrow dust layer of width
Δ
 R
, which is smaller than the altitude interval
δ 
 R
(Fig. 1a) to be cleared, andsynchronizing the rate of descent of the debris and the dustas described below.
 R
is the debris distance from the center of Earth. As the dust descends in altitude due to atmosphericdrag, it sweeps the small debris until a sufficiently lowaltitude (X
0
) is reached, below which the natural drag isenough to force debris reentry. Since
Δ
 R
<<
 
δ 
 R
, the volumeof dust is much less than the volume to be cleared of debris,and the dust mass to be transported to orbit can be kept to aminimum. A small
Δ
 R
~ 30–50 km allows for the option tomaneuver active satellites to avoid prolonged contact withthe injected dust. Neglecting the second term from Eq. (1),the order of magnitude of total dust mass
 M 
may beestimated as;44
 RRRTR MBB NCCNT 
δδ κκ 
ΔΔ
==
 
(2)
where
 N 
is the number of revolutions of the debrisfragments in orbit before reentry,
is the period of onerevolution (~ 90 min in LEO), (
δ 
 R
/
 NT 
) is the rate of debrisdescent due to induced drag.
~ 0.5–1.0 is a correctionfactor due to orbital geometry and is assumed to be 0.5 for this estimate. In deriving (2) we have used
Δ
/
=
δ 
 R
/ 2
 R
.Eq. (2) indicates that
 M 
is a ‘trade’ between various parameters to be chosen as warranted by the missionobjectives. For example, an estimated
 M 
of 20 tons (aboutone cubic meter of tungsten) is necessary to lower the orbitaltitudes of all
 B
 
5 kg/m
2
debris from 1100 km to below900 km in 10 years by releasing tungsten dust in a layer of width
Δ
 R
~ 30 km at 1100 km. The dust may be injected inone or several installments using excess launch capacity to be cost effective. Based on analysis discussed earlier weused
κ 
= 18. From Eq. (2) it can be gleaned that
 M 
dependssensitively on
κ 
. Determination of 
κ 
and its scaling withrelative velocity through laboratory measurements isnecessary.The rate of dust orbit decay, assuming
v
>>
v
 A
, can beobtained from Eq. (1) by neglecting the first term as2()
 A
 RRvdRdt
 ρ  ρ 
=
(3)where
 ρ 
 
and
are dust mass density and dimension and
 D
 = 2. By choosing appropriate
 ρ 
 
and
we can make
δ 
 R
/
 NT 
~
dR
/
dt 
which synchronizes the decay rates of the debris anddust orbits to realize the dust sweeping ‘snow plow’ effect.
 Dust Orbit Analysis
Orbit analysis using silicon and tungsten dust of a variety of sizes from 1 to 100
 μ 
m has been performed. The solar radiation pressure introduces a spatial spread to the dustorbit. These calculations suggest that 30–70
 μ 
m tungstendust is optimal for small debris elimination. The orbitallifetime of 60
 μ 
m diameter tungsten grains (Fig. 2a) incircular polar orbit injected at an altitude of 1100 km isabout 15 years. The average radial spread of the dust orbitdue to radiation pressure is about 30–50 km. Above 600 kmthe rate of decay of the dust is about 20 km/year so that dustis resident on a given altitude for about two years. Dustreleased in a polar circular orbit will remain in anapproximately circular polar orbit during its descent andwill deviate from its initial inertial longitude by only a fewdegrees (Fig. 2b). A more detailed analysis of the geometry

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