Space Image

NASA and SpaceX To Explore New Methods to Minimize Dragon Spacecraft Debris

This initiative comes after several incidents where debris from the trunk sections of Dragon spacecraft, which are jettisoned before the capsule performs a deorbit burn, have been discovered on land.

  • More details coming soon...
Zac Aubert

Zac Aubert

Tue Jul 02 2024Written by Zac Aubert

NASA and SpaceX are investigating modifications to the Dragon spacecraft’s reentry process to minimize the amount of debris from the spacecraft’s trunk section that reaches the ground. This initiative comes after several incidents where debris from the trunk sections of Dragon spacecraft, which are jettisoned before the capsule performs a deorbit burn, have been discovered on land.

Notable occurrences include debris from the Crew-1 Crew Dragon trunk found in Australia in 2022, the Ax-3 Crew Dragon trunk in Saskatchewan in February, and fragments from the Crew-7 trunk found in North Carolina in May.

Following the discovery of the Crew-1 debris in Australia, a SpaceX official described the incident as an isolated case.

“This was all within the expected analyzed space of what can happen...Nonetheless, just like we do for launches and any return, we look very closely at the data, we learn everything that we can and we always look for ways we can improve things,” - Benji Reed, Senior Director of Human Spaceflight Programs at SpaceX

However, with recent debris sightings, NASA and SpaceX recognize the need for enhancements. Initial studies had expected the trunk to burn up fully upon reentry.

Steve Stich, NASA commercial crew program manager, highlighted that the models used for analysis before the Demo-2 mission did not adequately account for the trunk. “It’s almost like a thermal protection system,” he said, attributing this to the composite materials used in the trunk.

NASA and SpaceX are considering changes to deorbiting procedures, where the trunk is currently released before the capsule’s orbit burn. This procedure allows the trunk to remain in orbit for months, resulting in uncontrolled reentry. Stich suggested an alternative approach involving performing the deorbit burn before releasing the trunk. This would provide more control over where the trunk reenters, ensuring debris lands in unpopulated areas.

“We’re in the process of doing that work right now...I would love to have something in place next year if we can, but we’ve got to do all the right analysis. We’ve got to make sure that it’s safe for the crew.” - Steve Stich, NASA Commercial Crew Program Manager

The alternative approach presents challenges, including the need for additional propellant for the deorbit burn while the trunk is still attached and determining the best method for trunk separation after the burn.

Engineers are exploring several methods to ensure the trunk reenters further downrange from the capsule, aiming for debris to land in the ocean.

Concerns about falling debris have intensified, not only from Dragon trunks but also from other sources, such as an ISS battery rack piece that performed an uncontrolled reentry on March 8. A piece of the rack, weighing nearly three-quarters of a kilogram, survived reentry and struck a house in Naples, Florida. The debris penetrated the roof but caused no injuries.

On June 21, the law firm Cranfill Sumner LLP announced a claim with NASA for approximately $80,000 in damages caused by the debris. Contrary to some media reports, this filing is a claim under the Federal Torts Claim Act, giving NASA six months to respond.

Mica Nguyen Worthy, the attorney representing the affected family, noted that under the Liability Convention, the U.S. would be “absolutely liable” for damages if the debris hit another country. However, this absolute liability does not apply within the United States. “Paying the claim would send a strong signal to both other governments and private industries that such victims should be compensated regardless of fault,”

Some see the debris as an opportunity. The Crew-7 trunk debris landed on a luxury camping site called The Glamping Collective, which has put the debris on display. “We invite you to come experience this yourself!” stated the site’s website, noting the debris is displayed at the start of a hiking trail.