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NASA-NOAA Suomi NPP satellite team ward off recent space debris threat

22 October 2014

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While space debris was the uncontrolled adversary in the award-winning space thriller film "Gravity," space debris, also known as "space junk," is an ongoing real-life concern for teams managing satellites orbiting Earth, including NOAA-NASA's Suomi National Polar-orbiting Partnership, or Suomi NPP, satellite. It is not unusual for satellites that have the capability of maneuvering to be repositioned to avoid debris or to maintain the proper orbit.

On an otherwise quiet Sunday on 28 September, the Suomi NPP mission team was monitoring a possible close approach of a debris object. By early evening, the risk was assessed to be high enough to start planning a spacecraft manoeuvre to put the satellite into a safer zone, out of the path of the object classified in a size range of 4 inches up to 3.3 feet.

It was determined that the object (travelling at almost 17,000 mph) was approaching at a nearly "head on" angle, and could potentially only miss the Suomi NPP satellite by approximately 300 feet on Tuesday, 30 September, if no action was taken. With that knowledge, the decision was made at 1:30 p.m. on Monday, 29 September, for NOAA's Satellite Operations Facility, or NSOF, in Suitland, Maryland, to reposition Suomi NPP. Operational control as well as planning and execution of all Suomi NPP maneuvers take place at NSOF.

"Because Suomi NPP moves at a similar speed as the debris object, if there had been an impact, it would have occurred at a combined speed of nearly 35,000 mph. This would have been catastrophic not only to the satellite, but would result in thousands of pieces of new debris," said Harry Solomon, Mission Manager for Suomi NPP at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center.

Source: National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA)

Image credit: NASA/Goddard Scientific Visualization Studio/Ryan Zuber - Artist's concept of Suomi NPP

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