Life imitates art as ISS survives ‘Gravity’ moment

13 May 2016

An image of one of the International Space Station’s (ISS) windows with a chip in it shows just how risky space exploration really is.

The storyline to Gravity was suitably terrifying, highlighting how defenceless spacecraft are to space debris impact. Once you’re hit, boom. However, that’s not always the case, as ESA astronaut Tim Peake proved earlier his week.

Tweeting an image of a chipped window aboard the ISS, the ESA has explained just how wear and tear can hit an isolated hub of scientific brilliance in space.

The chip is in the Cupola, the gantry where ISS astronauts snap images of Earth to share with us ants down below.

Measuring 7mm in diameter, the chip is a result of space debris. Not a space rock. Not some discarded infrastructure of previous spacecraft. Rather, something so small that it could have been a flake of paint.

“I am often asked if the International Space Station is hit by space debris. Yes – this is the chip in one of our Cupola windows, glad it is quadruple glazed!” said Peake.

The ESA suspects the debris was no bigger than a few thousandths of a millimetre across. For context, anything above 1cm could penetrate the shields of the ISS’s crew modules, and anything larger than 10cm could shatter a satellite or spacecraft into pieces.

The ISS has shielding around certain “vital crew and technical areas” in case of anything “minor”.

ISS impact

An example of the ESA’s ‘hypervelocity space debris impact’ tests

We are increasingly being made aware of the amount of space junk that is orbiting the Earth every day. In fact, Dr Lucy Rogers spoke at Inspirefest 2015 about how she is devoting a large part of her life to trying to find ways of collecting and removing it.

Research by the ESA shows that there are currently more than 12,000 pieces of space debris larger than 10cm in diameter orbiting the Earth

Last year, programmer James Yoder created Stuff In Space, a website that uses orbital data obtained from the website and a Javascript library called satellite.js to calculate satellite positions.

Main astronaut image via Shutterstock

Gordon Hunt was a journalist with Silicon Republic