BOX 2-6 Modeling Debris Clouds

One specialized type of breakup model focuses on the dynamics of the debris clouds formed following a collision or explosion in orbit (Chobotov, 1990). Although these models do not contribute significantly either to estimates of the current population or to the understanding of the long-term debris population, they can be useful in predicting the short-term hazard to spacecraft in orbits near where a breakup occurred. Such information is particularly useful for designers of spacecraft constellations, who are interested in ensuring that the breakup of one spacecraft will not overly endanger other spacecraft in the constellation.

craft and into a full-scale spacecraft model (Hogg et al., 1993). Unfortunately, analysis of the data from these tests was not completed due to a lack of funding. Consequently they have not resulted in any significant improvements in most breakup models, although the tests did demonstrate that breakup models that predicted few small fragments were incorrect. NASA has recently contracted with Kaman Sciences Corporation to complete the analysis of these tests.

These data, particularly the data from the in-orbit breakups, shed light mostly on the characteristics of the larger debris produced. Only the largest fragments of a breakup in orbit can be tracked, although fairly accurate velocity and area-to-mass ratios can be determined for these fragments. Even in ground tests, often only the larger fragments are recovered, since a great amount of work is required to recover the smaller pieces. As a result, the amount and the velocities of smaller debris produced in breakups are not well known.

Propagation Models

Orbit propagation models predict how the orbits of space objects change as a function of time. This information is used for two major purposes: determining the location of particular space objects in the relatively near term (typically over a period of a few days or less for purposes of collision avoidance or reentry predictions) and making long-term (typically over a period of years) predictions about the debris environment. The short- and long-term propagation tasks have some common characteristics, but each also faces unique challenges.

Both short- and long-term propagation models must take into account the various forces acting on space objects in Earth orbit. As described in Chapter 1, these include atmospheric drag, solar radiation pressure, gravitational perturbations by the Sun and Moon, and irregularities

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