Attack of the Space Junk!

There is a pretty cool gallery on Gizmodo of various pieces of spacecraft and rocket debris that have fallen to Earth, intact enough to have recognizable shapes.

A fallen rocket stage in Russia

This gallery puts in perspective what we mean when we say things “burn up” in the atmosphere. The friction of re-entry generates enormous heat, usually enough to break up rockets and satellites into tiny, unrecognizable pieces. But every now and then, conditions are just right for bits of spacecraft to make it all the way down to Earth. Some of the pieces are clearly spent rocket parts, which might not have been all the way up in orbit, but a few are most definitely chunks of previously orbiting spacecraft.

This sort of thing highlights one reason why launches all have range safety officers. If there is an unrecoverable problem during a launch, standard procedure is usually to blow up the rocket. The goal of such an action is to break the vehicle up into small pieces that will be much less likely to hit things on the ground.

As usual, the physics here is something that future spacecraft designers might be able to take advantage of: clearly, some spacecraft shapes other than the standard aeroshell capsules can make it to a planet surface. This idea has inspired certain spacecraft research groups to look at developing spacecraft that can get from orbit to the ground by fluttering down benignly.

Note: the problem of orbital debris, shown in the map in that gallery, is related but very different from the issues surrounding re-entering debris.

One thought on “Attack of the Space Junk!”

  1. To be fair, most of the heat generated on re-entry is due to the compression of gases around the object. Friction is still very important (especially depending on whether the boundary layer is laminar or turbulent), but the majority of it comes from slamming into the atmosphere at high speed.

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