On the Effect of Considering More Realistic Particle Shape and Mass Parameters in MMOD Risk Assessments


One of the primary mission risks tracked in the development of all spacecraft is that due to micro-meteoroids and orbital debris (MMOD). Both types of particles, especially those larger than 0.1 mm in diameter, contain sufficient kinetic energy due to their combined mass and velocities to cause serious damage to crew members and spacecraft. The process used to assess MMOD risk consists of three elements: environment, damage prediction, and damage tolerance. Orbital debris risk assessments for the Orion vehicle, as well as the Shuttle, Space Station and other satellites use ballistic limit equations (BLEs) that have been developed using high speed impact test data and results from numerical simulations that have used spherical projectiles. However, spheres are not expected to be a common shape for orbital debris; rather, orbital debris fragments might be better represented by other regular or irregular solids. In this paper we examine the general construction of NASA's current orbital debris (OD) model, explore the potential variations in orbital debris mass and shape that are possible when using particle characteristic length to define particle size (instead of assuming spherical particles), and, considering specifically the Orion vehicle, perform an orbital debris risk sensitivity study taking into account variations in particle mass and shape as noted above. While the results of the work performed for this study are preliminary, they do show that continuing to use aluminum spheres in spacecraft risk assessments could result in an over-design of its MMOD protection systems. In such a case, the spacecraft could be heavier than needed, could cost more than needed, and could cost more to put into orbit than needed. The results obtained in this study also show the need to incorporate effects of mass and shape in mission risk assessment prior to first flight of any spacecraft as well as the need to continue to develop/refine BLEs so that they more accurately reflect the shape and material density variations inherent to the actual debris environment.


Civil, Architectural and Environmental Engineering


NASA Engineering and Safety Center

Keywords and Phrases

CEV; MMOD; Ballistic Limit; Orbital Debris; Shape Effects

Library of Congress Subject Headings

Risk assessment
Space debris

Document Type

Article - Journal

Document Version


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