HOUSTON – 28 NOV 12
JSC Intern Combats Space Debris with ADR
The Environmental Protection Agency reports that the average American produces approximately 1,600 pounds of waste each year, and that is just on earth. In earth’s orbit, there are more than 500,000 pieces of monitored debris, our “trash” in space, of which about 20,000 objects are larger than a softball and can do considerable damage to spacecraft while traveling at speeds of 17,500 mph. At these speeds, even the millions of pieces of microscopic debris can do damage.
So what can be classified as orbital debris? “Orbital debris can be defined as any man-made object revolving around earth that no longer serves a purpose,” explained NASA Intern Paul Schattenberg. “Some types of orbital debris include nonfunctional spacecraft, mission related debris, launch vehicle stages, and collision debris.”
This summer, Schattenberg joined his NASA Mentor Anthony Griffith as a Texas A&M University senior to learn and get hands-on experience with Active Debris Removal (ADR) systems. He revealed, “Currently, there is no way of removing this debris from space. If these debris objects are left alone to a natural decay, then Low Earth Orbit (LEO) will become an ever-increasing risky environment for living, working, conducting research, and exploration. In order to minimize this problem, the mission of Active Debris Removal is to be a sustainable project that will lower the amount of catalogued debris objects in earth orbit.”
Prior to coming to Johnson Space Center (JSC) in Houston, Schattenberg took the initiative to contact his mentor to find out more information about the project and to attend a Technical Interchange Meeting (TIM) that was occurring in College Station. He stated, “After the TIM, I had a general understanding about what my project would involve.”
As an intern on the ADR project, he had to master certain skills that he had little or no exposure to previously. The result – he learned pro-Engineer (pro-E), C programming, hardware interfacing and communications, and metal shopping.
Schattenberg noted, “My first assignment was to design a constant cable tensioning mechanism [in pro-E]. This mechanism had to be able to detect when it was within a certain distance away from the targeted debris object so a capture mechanism could be deployed.” His design was vetted by his team and reviewed at the TIM last August.
He was also tasked to figure out how to control the air-bearing sensor testing suite of the ADR device called the sled, which would allow the sled to move in different directions. This is where C Programming came into play. By the end of his internship, he not only completed this task, but he also was able to integrate the joystick command source code into the program so that the sled could be easily maneuvered with a joystick.
Typically, summer students intern for 10 weeks. Not in the case of Schattenberg; he did such a great job, his mentor kept him on for an additional 5 weeks, giving him a total of 600 hours NASA experience. Ultimately, Schattenberg said he would like to work at NASA and hopes to one day join the astronaut corps.
Before this project, he did not really think of space debris as an issue. However, now he has a different view and sees the importance behind ADR’s mission and what he was able to both contribute and learn from his projects. He said, “My most rewarding experience was watching myself acquire skills I previously never had, putting them to use, and watching the project come together. It is a very rewarding experience to put your finger on a particular part of a project and say that you designed it.”