ISS abandons a 2.9-ton battery platform, creating its most massive piece of space junk


The external pallet filled with old nickel-hydrogen batteries, photographed shortly after being released by the Canadarm2 robotic arm.  The object was in orbit 265 miles (427 km) above Chile when this photo was taken from the ISS.

The external pallet filled with old nickel-hydrogen batteries, photographed shortly after being released by the Canadarm2 robotic arm. The object was in orbit 265 miles (427 km) above Chile when this photo was taken from the ISS.
Picture: POT

Weighing in at 2.9 tons and traveling 4.8 miles per second, this pile of old batteries is now the heaviest piece of garbage ever dumped from the International Space Station.

The pallet is filled with nickel-hydrogen batteries and will remain in low-Earth orbit for the next two to four years “before burning harmlessly in the atmosphere,” according to a NASA. statement. SpaceFlightNow reports that the paddle is the “most massive object ever dropped from the orbiting outpost.”

NASA spokeswoman Leah Cheshier confirmed that this is the case.

“The Outer Pallet was the largest object, by mass, launched from the International Space Station at 2.9 tons, more than double the mass of the Early Ammonia Servicing System tank dropped by spacewalker Clay Anderson during the STS-118 mission in 2007, ”Cheshier wrote in an email.

NASA ballistics officials “do not indicate any threat” that the paddle will hit other space objects, but “this element, like all, will be tracked by the United States Space Command,” he added.

It was not the original plan for the pallet to be disposed of like this. the failed launch of a Soyuz rocket in 2018, in which NASA astronaut Nick Hague and Roscosmos cosmonaut Alexey Ovchinin were forced to make an emergency landing in the Kazakh steppe, caused a disruption to the spacewalk program, resulting in led to leftover palette.

The Canadarm2 robotic arm shortly before releasing the pallet.

The Canadarm2 robotic arm shortly before releasing the pallet.
Picture: POT

NASA’s spacewalk on February 1, 2021, in which astronauts Mike Hopkins and Victor Glover participated, was Be unable that was the conclusion of a four-year effort to upgrade the space station’s batteries. These batteries store energy collected by solar panels, but in 2011 NASA decided to switch from nickel-hydrogen batteries to lithium-ion batteries. The production of these batteries started in 2014 and the changeover process started in 2016.

This effort required four supply missions from the Japanese H-II Transfer Vehicle (HTV) cargo spacecraft, 13 different astronauts, and 14 spacewalks, in which 48 nickel-hydrogen batteries were replaced by 24 lithium-ion batteries.

Normally old batteries would be placed inside an HTV and disposed of from the ISS, with most items burned out upon re-entry. But the failure of the Soyuz launch disrupted the spacewalk pattern and planned schedule, so that, in late 2018, an HTV cargo freighter left the station without a battery platform, according to SpaceFlightNow. The battery replacement mission continued and the HTVs continued to leave the station with paddles, but now with an additional one permanently attached to the station. With the mission over and with no more HTVs to come (at least none of the old design are being replaced by the HTV-X cargo spacecraft), the mission planners had to ditch the pallet themselves.

So that’s what they did on Thursday, March 11, when mission controllers in Houston used the Canadarm2 robotic arm to “launch an external paddle loaded with old nickel-hydrogen batteries into Earth’s orbit.” according to NASA. The object was launched approximately 265 miles (427 km) above the Earth’s surface.

“It used to be that it wasn’t a big deal to dump things off the ISS because too few satellites they were under him [at altitudes below 250 miles (400 km)], “Jonathan McDowell, an astrophysicist at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics, explained in an email. “That is no longer so true with a bunch of cubesats and recently launched Starlinks during orbit lift. So I have concerns. “

To which he added: “I don’t immediately see what else they could have done except fly an additional HTV. mission just to get rid of him. “

According to the European Space Agency, around Currently, there are 34,000 objects larger than 3.9 inches (10 cm) in orbit around the Earth, in addition to millions of smaller objects, such as tools and pieces of spacecraft. The volume of objects in space, both functional and non-functional, is constantly increasing, raising concerns about possible collisions and even more orbital debris.

This post has been updated to include comments made by Jonathan McDowell.

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