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A big week in space: Russian weapons, uncontrolled reentry, and the SLIM moon lander

(Jan. 8, 2024) --- A cloud-covered Indian Ocean, illuminated about an hour before sunset, is pictured from the International Space Station as it orbited 260 miles above just off the northeast coast of the island nation of Madagascar.
(Jan. 8, 2024) --- A cloud-covered Indian Ocean, illuminated about an hour before sunset, is pictured from the International Space Station as it orbited 260 miles above just off the northeast coast of the island nation of Madagascar.

It's sometimes easy to forget there are amazing, awe-inspiring things happening above us in space.

On this week’s edition of "Weekend Insight," we'll take a look at some of the more important happenings in the field in a new semi-regular feature called "Things in Space" with our resident space expert, Chris Combs.

Chris is a Dee Howard Faculty Fellow and associate professor in the Department of Mechanical Engineering at the University of Texas at San Antonio.

Clayton: This story is just breaking this week. It looks like Russia is saber-rattling and talking about putting weapons in space. What is going on?

Combs: It sounds like this is about an anti-satellite weapon that Russia is looking to develop, basically something that would be able to shoot down active satellites. It's not necessarily an imminent threat. Various countries have done some anti-satellite testing, including the United States. The problem is [when] you start destroying satellites in space—aside from the loss of function or communication that a satellite could possess.

And short of the implications of taking an action like this on a foreign state, there's this problem with a large amount of debris that is still at orbital velocity being generated in space, and then [that] impacts other satellites and causes a bit of a cascade avalanche effect, where a large portion of an orbital path is now suddenly very dangerous for lots of different things. It could even potentially impact astronauts on the International Space Station.

Clayton: The European Space Agency says, 'hey, don't worry,' but there's this big, old satellite and it's going to crash into Earth in the coming days. What is this thing? And should we start worrying about other space junk de-orbiting in the future?

Combs: So, the European Space Agency has an older satellite from the '90s that finished its mission a long time ago and is now about to undergo uncontrolled reentry. It's on the large side of satellites that typically do sort of burn up in the atmosphere. Relative to some other recent uncontrolled reentry, like some of these Chinese rocket stages.

I would expect that some components will end up crashing back to Earth. ESA is stressing in their messaging that the odds of any individual person actually being struck by this are exceedingly low. Of course, the Earth is 70% water, so there's a 70% chance this harmlessly ends up in the ocean.

But...something that really, the whole world space ecosystem is trying to be a little bit more conscious of is when we put these big things up into orbit, can we have a plan to get them down in a controlled manner where we want to?

Although I don't think people should lose sleep. Odds are remarkably small that this thing ends up anywhere near you.

Clayton: The Japanese are now explaining why their moon lander SLIM ended up upside down on the moon. What happened there?

Combs: So, this spacecraft, SLIM, it's been nicknamed Space Sniper because it was supposed to land very accurately on the moon. And it actually, despite this mishap, did a really remarkable job. It landed within 50m of its target point. What's remarkable about this, SLIM was actually able to release a couple of small rover probes before it landed.

But then during that landing procedure, one of the main engine nozzles appears to have fallen off, which then threw off its trajectory a little bit. It missed its intended landing spot by about 50m, which is really small, but it ended up landing, somewhat on the side of a slope. And then it kind of rolled down that hill a bit and ended up landing still softly on its nose.

It initially was not powered very well because the solar panels, because of this orientation, were not pointed the right way. But then the sun came into the right spot, the lighting conditions changed. And my understanding is that the lander is actually communicating again.

So really impressive stuff by JAXA, despite the fact that, SLIM didn't land on its side as intended, but on its nose.

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Jerry Clayton can be reached at jerry@tpr.org or on Twitter at @jerryclayton.