You’d think that satellites would be pretty safe in the emptiness of Earth’s low orbit but that couldn’t be any farther from the truth. Earth’s low orbit has a lot of junk. This space junk is mostly easy to track to make sure that the satellites don’t collide with them but some pieces are small enough to evade detection. And this is exactly what happened with the International Space Station.
A piece of space debris hit and damaged part of the International Space Station. The damaged part was the Canadarm2 Robotic arm. The arm was formerly known as the Space Station Remote Manipulator System or SSRMS. It was designed by the Canadian Space Agency. The arm has been on the space station for 20 years assisting in maneuvering outside objects like cargo shuttles. It also helps with station maintenance.
Luckily the instrument is still operational but the object did puncture its thermal blanket and damaged the boom underneath. Space debris is hard to track, especially when it’s smaller than a regular softball. Even a tiny piece can hit hard when it’s traveling at Orbital velocities. A similar incident happened back in 1997 when debris left a small dent in the Hubble Space Telescope’s antenna.
The surprising thing is that no one knows when the arm was damaged. They first noticed it on the 12th of May during a routine inspection. Since then NASA and the CSA have been working to figure it out. They have taken detailed images to assess the damage. According to a CSA blog post, “Despite the impact, results of the ongoing analysis indicate that the arm’s performance remains unaffected. The damage is limited to a small section of the arm boom and thermal blanket. Canadarm2 is continuing to conduct its planned operations”.
Space debris is becoming a problem and it’s accumulating every day. According to the European Space Agency, around 130 million fragments of anthropogenic material is orbiting the Earth right now. Almost all of it is smaller than a millimeter. The damage being concentrated on the arm is a good thing. The debris could have caused serious damage if it hit the more sensitive areas of the station.
Even last year, the International Space Station had to perform evasive maneuvers three times in order to avoid collisions with space debris.