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Simulating Orbital Impacts with TACC Supercomputers

The sky is getting crowded. According to NASA, there are more than 21,000 pieces of ‘space junk’ roughly the size of a baseball in orbit, and about 500,000 pieces that are golf ball-sized. To help mitigate risk, researchers are using TACC supercomputers to simulate orbital debris impacts on spacecraft.

If a spacecraft is hit by orbital debris it may damage the thermal protection system,” said Eric Fahrenthold, professor of mechanical engineering at The University of Texas at Austin, who studies impact dynamics both experimentally and through numerical simulations. “Even if the impact is not on the main heat shield, it may still adversely affect the spacecraft. The thermal researchers take the results of impact research and assess the effect of a certain impact crater depth and volume on the survivability of a spacecraft during reentry,” Fahrenthold said.

Running hundreds of simulations on the Ranger, Lonestar and Stampede supercomputers at the Texas Advanced Computing Center, Fahrenthold and his students have assisted NASA in the development of ballistic limit curves that predict whether a shield will be perforated when hit by a projectile of a given size and speed. NASA uses ballistic limit curves in the design and risk analysis of current and future spacecraft.

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