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ESA simulates satellite collisions to predict space debris



The European Space Agency (ESA) has simulated a satellite collision in a project to better understand the consequences of collisions and the formation of space debris.

As part of the project, ESA carried out two different types of software simulations, including one at the German Fraunhofer Institute for Short-Time Dynamics. The second simulation was conducted by a consortium led by the Center for Studies and Activities for Space at the University of Padua.

The first approach relies on an advanced numerical method to simulate the deformation and fragmentation processes in a collision.

Represented by a "finite element mesh", the colliding elements are modeled with realistic structural and mechanical properties.

"We must have this understanding because we are currently working on expensive debris reduction strategies based on our understanding of debris behavior."

The "finite element mesh" is transformed into single particles while the satellites fragment simulate their structural response to the collision. This also generates the debris that will be monitored over time.

In the second approach, the spacecraft is treated as a structure of larger elements, including plates, payload, fuel tanks, or solar arrays connected to physical links.

When the collision transfers energy, these connections break and the elements become fragmented.

According to the ESA, these two types of simulation should provide new insights into the underlying physics of collisions when working at the material and component levels.

When these simulations simulate the observed reality, they are expected to be used to reproduce the full impact of satellites on a 500 kg scale.

Holger Krag, representative of the ESA Space Debris Office, said: "We need to have this understanding because we are currently working on expensive debris minimization strategies based on our understanding of debris.

"We project the development of the debris environment to 200 years ahead."

So far, four satellite collisions have occurred in the history of the space industry, but the number is expected to increase in the future.

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