NASA and SpaceX Study Ways to Mitigate Dragon Debris

Washington – NASA and SpaceX are studying how to modify the process of re-entering the Dragon spacecraft into the Earth’s atmosphere with the aim of reducing the amount of debris from the back of the spacecraft that reaches Earth.

On several occasions, debris from Crew Dragon spacecraft trunk sections, which were jettisoned from the capsule before the capsule burned up outside orbit, has been found on Earth. These include debris from the Crew-1 Crew Dragon trunk, which was found in Australia in 2022; the Crew-3 Crew Dragon trunk, which fell in Saskatchewan in February; and the Crew-7 trunk, parts of which were found in May in North Carolina.

In August 2022, shortly after the Crew-1 spacecraft debris was found in Australia, a SpaceX official downplayed the incident as an isolated incident. “This was all within the expected range of what could have happened,” Benji Reed, SpaceX’s senior director of human spaceflight programs, said in a NASA briefing. “However, just as we do with launches and any reentry, we look closely at the data, learn everything we can and always look for ways to improve.”

After recently spotting the debris, NASA and SpaceX now acknowledge the need to make improvements. The agency recently reported that preliminary studies predicted the torso would be completely burned upon reentry. “NASA and SpaceX will continue to explore additional solutions as we learn from the discovered debris,” NASA stated.

“We did analysis before Demo-2 and it’s clear that the models don’t handle the box well,” Steve Stich, NASA’s Commercial Crew Program manager, said in an interview after briefing Starliner before that mission’s June 6 launch. He said this was likely due to the composite materials used in the box. “It’s almost like a thermal protection system.”

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He said that the solution being considered by NASA and SpaceX includes changing the procedures for removing the capsule from orbit. Currently, the trunk is released before the capsule burns into orbit. This means that the trunk could remain in orbit for several months before re-entering uncontrollably.

Instead, Stitch said, engineers are examining the possibility of burning the torso from orbit and then launching it. This would provide more control over where the trunk returns, ensuring that any debris that survives returning to Earth lands in unpopulated areas.

“We’re in the process of doing that work now. I would love to have something ready next year if we can, but we have to do all the right analysis. We have to make sure it’s safe for the crew,” he said.

Challenges with this alternative approach include using additional fuel to burn the box during deorbit while the box is still attached and then figuring out the best way to separate the box after the burn. Engineers are looking at two ways to do this that would move the box away from the capsule upon reentry, so any debris would land in the ocean, Stich said.

Concerns have been raised about the risk of falling debris not only from Dragon’s trunks but also from a piece of the International Space Station’s battery rack that re-entered Earth’s atmosphere uncontrolled on March 8. A piece of that rack, weighing about three-quarters of a kilogram, survived re-entry and struck a home in Naples, Florida. The debris fell through the roof of the home but caused no injuries.

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On June 21, the law firm Cranfill Sumner LLP announced that it had filed a lawsuit with NASA seeking approximately $80,000 in damages caused by the debris. In fact, the lawsuit, which some media outlets incorrectly reported as a lawsuit, is in fact a claim under the Federal Tort Claims Act, which gives NASA six months to respond to the lawsuit.

Mika Nguyen Worthy, an attorney who filed the lawsuit on behalf of the family whose home was damaged, noted that under the space treaty known as the Liability Convention, the United States would be “fully liable” for damages if debris hits another country. But the same strict liability does not apply here because the damage occurred in the United States.

“Here, the U.S. government, through NASA, has an opportunity to set the standard or ‘precedent’ for what responsible, safe, and sustainable space operations should look like,” she said in the statement. “Passing the claim would send a strong signal to both other governments and private industry that such victims should receive compensation regardless of fault,” she concluded.

Others see opportunity in the falling debris. The wreckage of the Crew-7 plane’s trunk landed on a luxury camping site called The Glamping Collective, which posted photos of it. “We invite you to experience it for yourself!” She stated on her websitenoting that the wreckage will be displayed at the beginning of the hiking trail.

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