NASA and SpaceX Address Dragon Trunk Debris Issue

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By Lydia Amazouz Published on July 1, 2024 16:32
Nasa And Spacex Address Dragon Trunk Debris Issue

In recent years, debris from SpaceX’s Dragon spacecraft has become a growing concern, prompting NASA and SpaceX to explore new strategies to mitigate the risks associated with reentry debris.

This issue has gained significant attention after multiple incidents where fragments of the spacecraft’s trunk sections were found on land, causing both potential hazards and property damage.

Incidents of Dragon Trunk Debris

Debris from the Dragon spacecraft has been discovered in various locations, underscoring the need for improved reentry procedures. In 2022, debris from the Crew-1 Dragon trunk was found in Australia. This incident initially downplayed by SpaceX as an isolated case, led Benji Reed, senior director of human spaceflight programs at SpaceX, to state, “This was all within the expected analyzed space of what can happen. Nonetheless, just like we do for launches and any return, we look very closely at the data, we learn everything that we can and we always look for ways we can improve things.” Despite this assurance, more incidents followed, indicating a pattern.

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In February 2024, fragments of the Ax-3 Crew Dragon were located in Saskatchewan, further highlighting the need for improved reentry strategies. The discovery of these fragments reiterated the necessity for NASA and SpaceX to reassess their current procedures to ensure that debris does not pose a threat to populated areas.

Space Debris Saskatchewan

Most recently, in May 2024, parts of the Crew-7 trunk were identified in North Carolina. This incident not only raised safety concerns but also resulted in debris becoming a local attraction. The Glamping Collective, a luxury camping site where the debris landed, capitalized on the event by advertising, “We invite you to come experience this yourself!” and showcasing the debris at the start of a hiking trail. These occurrences have led NASA and SpaceX to reconsider and enhance their current reentry strategies to prevent such incidents from happening in the future.

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Challenges and Proposed Solutions

The Dragon spacecraft’s trunk section, which is jettisoned before the capsule performs its deorbit burn, has been found to survive reentry more frequently than initially expected. The models used before the Demo-2 mission did not accurately predict the behavior of the trunk during reentry.

Steve Stich, NASA’s commercial crew program manager, noted, “We did analysis back before Demo-2 and clearly the models don’t deal with the trunk very well. It’s almost like a thermal protection system.” This observation suggests that the composite materials used in the trunk provide more resilience than anticipated, resulting in debris that reaches the ground.

To address this issue, NASA and SpaceX are considering altering the deorbiting process. Currently, the trunk is released before the capsule’s deorbit burn, allowing it to remain in orbit for an extended period before making an uncontrolled reentry. The proposed solution involves performing the deorbit burn with the trunk still attached and releasing it afterward, providing better control over where the debris lands. This method could ensure that any surviving debris falls into unpopulated areas, such as oceans, rather than inhabited regions.

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Stich elaborated on the approach, stating, “We’re in the process of doing that work right now. I would love to have something in place next year if we can, but we’ve got to do all the right analysis. We’ve got to make sure that it’s safe for the crew.” This new approach presents challenges, including the need for additional propellant to perform the deorbit burn with the trunk attached and ensuring the safe separation of the trunk after the burn. Engineers are exploring various methods to achieve this, aiming to have a solution implemented as soon as possible.

NASA's Safety Considerations

The issue of falling space debris has broader implications beyond technical adjustments. For instance, in March 2024, a piece of an ISS battery rack caused damage to a house in Naples, Florida. This incident led to a claim filed against NASA for $80,000 in damages. Mica Nguyen Worthy, the attorney representing the affected family, emphasized the need for NASA to set a precedent for responsible space operations, stating, “Here, the U.S. government, through NASA, has an opportunity to set the standard or ‘set a precedent’ as to what responsible, safe, and sustainable space operations ought to look like. Paying the claim would send a strong signal to both other governments and private industries that such victims should be compensated regardless of fault.”

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Additionally, debris from the Crew-7 trunk landed at a luxury camping site in North Carolina, which has since used the incident as a unique attraction. The Glamping Collective, where the debris was found, advertised, “We invite you to come experience this yourself!” showcasing the debris at the start of a hiking trail. This unusual display highlights both the potential risks and the public's fascination with space debris.

Implementing New Reentry Procedures

NASA and SpaceX are committed to finding a viable solution to manage reentry debris from the Dragon spacecraft. The ongoing studies aim to ensure that any future debris lands in unpopulated areas, minimizing risks to people and property. This effort reflects a broader commitment to sustainable and responsible space exploration, ensuring that advancements in space technology do not come at the expense of safety and environmental integrity.

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As Jeff Foust from SpaceNews highlighted, the collaborative efforts between NASA and SpaceX signify a proactive approach to addressing the challenges posed by space debris, ensuring the continued success and safety of human spaceflight missions. The implementation of new reentry procedures for the Dragon spacecraft will set a precedent for future missions, promoting safe and sustainable practices in the expanding field of commercial space exploration.

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1 comment on «NASA and SpaceX Address Dragon Trunk Debris Issue»

  • Homer10

    They should put aerodynamic fins on the trunk that imparts a spin on the trunk. As the trunk falls through the atmosphere it will then spin up to very high speeds as it re enters. This will tear the trunk into very small pieces that will burn up completely.

    Reply
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