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Steel in space - Eight facts about rockets, space junk and innovation

Published on July 20, 2021

5 min read

Did you also want to reach for the stars as a child? In many elementary school classes, "astronaut" is one of the most popular career aspirations. But the path to this goal is difficult to realize; only very few find their way into the aerospace industry. If you decided to pursue a career in the steel industry instead, this is the right article for you. We take a look at steel in space, space junkand the big cleanup in orbit.

Table of Content

Fact 1: Steel is only used for key parts in aerospace

Fact 2: SpaceX builds exceptional "Super Heavy" steel rocket 

Fact 3: Steel igloo makes astronauts more comfortable

Fact 4: Space junk on Earth: Recycled, valuable and dangerous

Fact 5: 28,000 pieces of debris are constantly monitored 

Fact 6: Total mass of all objects in orbit: 9,200 tons

Fact 7: The Kessler syndrome: Manned space flight has an expiration date

Fact 8: Scrap removal in orbit with nets and harpoons

Fact 1: Steel is only used for key parts in aerospace

Due to its weight, steel only plays a role in key parts in aerospace. It is simply too heavy. However, steel is still used for highlydemanding applications because of its specific material properties. For example in launch vehicles or satellites.

Fact 2: SpaceX builds exceptional "Super Heavy" steel rocket 

SpaceX is building a rocket in Florida whose design is said to differ from other types of rockets in a "counterintuitive way." The launch vehicle for the "Starship" spacecraft is called "Super Heavy" - both will use steel tanks instead of aluminum or carbon fiber materials. The balloon tanks work like soda cans: the high tensile strength of certain steel alloys makes it possible to build thin propellant tanks that gain stability from the high internal pressure. “Starship” is intended to take people to the moon one day. Disappointingly for company boss Elon Musk, also the third test flight in spring 2021 has ended in an explosion - but this time after landing.

Fact 3: Steel igloo makes astronauts more comfortable

Many spaceships in science fiction movies offer great comfort and generous panoramic windows with an open view on stars and planets. Reality often looks different. An Italian company now wants to change that: More design and comfort for space travelers! An igloo made of steel and glass is planned for the ISS. It is supposed to provide an open view of space and some of the outer walls of the ISS, and it is also supposed to provide a bit of coziness. We are curious about the view!

Fact 4: Space junk on Earth: Recycled, valuable and dangerous

If you've ever wanted to own something from space: How about a watch or jewelry made from space junk? Every now and then, high-tech debris and space junk rain down on Earth. Especially in the sparsely populated Russian taiga in the Mesenki region on the White Sea. The people there are happy about the valuable precipitation that falls from the sky They live not far from the long-secret Plesszek spaceport. They use debris made of steel, aluminum and other high-grade metals to make everyday objects because the material is so durable: shovels, scythes, boilers, sleds and even boats. Now and then there is also gold and titanium, the trade with it is forbidden but there are high prices for it on the black market. However, there is an invisible danger attached to some components: the rocket fuel dimethylhydrazine is considered highly toxic and is suspected of being carcinogenic. Researchers are currently investigating the extent to which the remains of the fuel have already contaminated the surrounding soil and whether cancer rates are on the rise.

Fact 5: 28,000 pieces of debris are constantly monitored 

Since the beginning of space travel, there have been 5,450 rocket launches. 8,950 satellites have been put into orbit this way. 6,250 of these satellites are still in orbit but 2,350 of them are no longer in use. Unused satellites are joined by rocket engines that are thrown off once a rocket has reached space. This debris is a constant threat of collision and damage. Therefore, they are watched by worldwide space surveillance networks.

Fact 6: Total mass of all objects in orbit: 9,200 tons

If you stacked 9,200 tons of space debris on top of each other, you would have a tower as heavy as the Eiffel Tower. Yet the individual pieces are often no larger than a coin: About 34,000 objects are larger than ten centimeters, 900,000 are between one and ten centimeters, and 100,000 million particles are smaller than one centimeter. Space debris can reach speeds of up to 30,0000km/h.

Fact 7: The Kessler syndrome: Manned space flight has an expiration date

Kessler's syndrome is not a disease, but it is still dangerous. Astronomer and NASA employee Donald J. Kessler's theory is based on the following: debris in orbit will cascade as each collision causes new debris, making collisions more likely. Most collisions occur when small objects hit large objects. Studies estimate the rate doubles every five years. In 100 years, manned spaceflight would be nearly impossible because of the hazards.But it also has an impact on Earth: Damage to satellites affects global telecommunications, weather forecasts and all GPS services. Recommended film on this subject: Gravity (2013).

Fact 8: Scrap removal in orbit with nets and harpoons

Cleaning up is no fun, but it has to be done. The European Space Commission ESA sees an urgent need for action. The progress of the Kessler syndrome is to be halted with the help of the "Clean Space" mission. This includes the trend toward more sustainable space travel, as well as collecting debris, burned-out rocket upper stages, discarded satellites and lost tools. Systems using nets and harpoons are being tested, but plasma jets are also in use. A Dutch artist wants to turn space debris into shooting stars. Nets will be used to collect the debris and burn it in a controlled manner by entering the Earth's atmosphere. Perhaps a good alternative for fireworks?

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