If someone asked you which of the solar system’s planets has rings most people would probably mention Saturn. If you’ve been reading Our Space for a while you might remember that Jupiter, Uranus and Neptune also have rings — albeit very tenuous ones that were only discovered by far-flung spacecraft and space telescopes. All of those rings are thought to consist of ice crystals, dust and gravel.
But you may also recall that Earth, too, has a ring, but unlike the other planets ours is entirely artificial, not pretty and becoming a bigger problem every day.
Sadly, humankind has always been very accomplished doing one thing - littering, and most of Earth’s rings are exactly that: garbage. Granted, there are a lot of satellites up there, and all of the working ones make our lives so much easier, but then there’s the question of what happens to the dead and broken ones, the old rocket parts and all the bits and pieces from collisions and mechanical failures. Just recently a giant burnt-out rocket that boosted the first part of a new Chinese space station into orbit terrorized the planet, since no provisions were made to de-orbit the monster machine safely and nobody could tell where it was going to come down.
Granted, the likelihood of anyone getting hit by falling space debris is miniscule, but the real danger isn’t so much here on the ground (most space debris, except for the really big pieces, burns up in the atmosphere anyway). What’s getting trickier every day is keeping those precious satellites running and out of the path of all that orbiting debris from Earth’s human-made ring. And it’s even more critical for the residents of the International Space Station (ISS) – there is a constant danger of a small piece of space junk ripping a hole into the station. Going many thousand miles per hour even a teeny tiny screw can spell disaster.
The U.S. Department of Defense tracks more than 27,000 pieces of space junk, including approximately 23,000 objects larger than a softball, but even the smaller ones can come as a very unpleasant surprise.
And that’s exactly what happened to the remote manipulator arm or “CanadArm” (a fitting moniker, as it was contributed by the Canadian Space Program). During a routine inspection a small hole was discovered in the crane-like structure. It was obviously created in a chance collision with a bit of debris. It looks a little bit like a bullet hole, and the mechanics are actually very similar.
So it wasn’t the kind of shot in the arm that makes you feel better (or, rather appropriately, keeps you protected from extremely infectious diseases like COVID-19), but neither did it do any real damage — the CanadArm is functioning normally. That was a big sigh of relief for those planning the general operations for the ISS. The CanadArm is an absolutely indispensable tool for the station.
Its first iteration of the CanadArm flew on many Space Shuttle missions, used to pluck satellites from the cargo bay and releasing them into orbit, or to grab others – such as the Hubble Space Telescope — for servicing or repair. CanadArm2 is the big sibling of the shuttle arm – capable of moving end-over-end along the full length of the ISS, to anchor exactly where it’s needed, transporting astronauts or letting them berth cargo ships to a docking port.
The space bullet hole didn’t hit any critical joins or electronics so the damage is mostly cosmetic, but it still needs to be checked out to make sure it won’t get any worse or affect other parts. The CanadArms are fashioned after the functionality of a human arm – with shoulder, elbow and wrist joints, and even fingers of a sort – different interchangeable attachments on the hand portion.
There will of course be a CanadArm on the lunar Gateway station, as a vital part of the Artemis program – and it earned a Canadian astronaut a seat on the first crewed lunar mission. This third generation robotic crane is far fancier and much more capable than the Space Shuttle version; it will have its own brain and is meant to operate autonomously – it will even be able to repair itself! Don’t you wish your car or your washing machine could do that?
It takes constant vigilance to keep our assets in space safe. However, the time has come for some serious thought – and money – to be spent on cleaning up the mess that is Earth’s debris ring, because that’s the kind of shot you don’t want in your body or equipment, especially not in your CanadArm!
Learn more about the amazing contributions the CanadArms have made to human spaceflight at https://asc-csa.gc.ca/eng/canadarm/default.asp
Beate Czogalla is the Professor of Theater Design in the Department of Theatre and Dance at Georgia College & State University. She has had a lifelong interest in space exploration and has been a Solar System Ambassador for the Jet Propulsion Laboratory/ NASA for many years. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org