Investigating On-Orbit Satellite Fragmentation Events
The exponential growth of space debris poses a significant threat to humankind’s activities in orbit. It is thus worthwhile to investigate debris-generating events and uncover their causes, consequently informing debris-mitigation guidelines and safer spacecraft design. This work sets out to examine three fragmentation events pertaining to Centaur upper stages which have yet to be fully understood. Critical breakup characteristics such as breakup epoch, fragment velocities, and angular distributions for the Centaur events, as well as select historic fragmentation events are presented. Subsequently, hypotheses regarding the causes of the events are postulated. The Centaur fragmentations stray from breakup patterns exhibited by ’typical’ upper stage fragmentations such as those of the historic explosive Delta upper stage events. Only one of the three events, 2018-079B, appears to have fragmented due to the combustion of leftover propellant. 2009-047B, on the other hand, likely endured a structural failure – inferred from clustered fragments and low fragment spreading speeds. A torus-shaped fragment distribution is observed for the 2014-055B event, suggesting a collision with a small piece of debris may have taken place.