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Can a Single Piece of Floating Cheetos Destroy the International Space Center?

Image for representation. Credits: NASA.

Image for representation. Credits: NASA.

As ridiculous as this theory sounds, space junk is a real threat, even tiny fragments of it. In just September last year, the International Space Station just dodged a fast-moving hunk of orbiting junk and the three astronauts then currently living aboard the station sheltered in the station's Russian segment during the maneuver to be closer to their Soyuz spacecraft, the NASA update stated.

In space, nobody can hear you scream (from frustration that you can't test your weird theory out.)

A recent question posted on sub-reddit r/space sparked off a debate that was just more than banter, but delved deep into astrophysics, and turned into what was a battle between one of the strongest structures ever built - and one crunchy flaming hot boi.

"Would an orbiting Cheetoh Puff destroy the International Space Station if the two of them directly collided? My 7yo daughter asked me, and I had no clue. I said probably," posted u/funisallmynames on 14th January.

The comment section saw professional aerospace engineers and even a scientist who claimed they helped design the ISS, weighing in, among many other people who all agreed that if it came down to it, the crusty little puff wouldn’t stand a chance.

The top rated comment was from an 'aerospace engineer," who said "I estimate the ISS would not take as considerable damage as others are saying, for a few reasons: Cheeto puffs are extremely brittle. Cheeto puffs have extremely low density. Cheeto puffs have a high oil content. Cheeto puffs have very low inertia.

Even at impact velocities of 15km/s, I would expect the cheeto puff would simply be vaporized on contact with the ISS. Depending where it hit, it may leave a dent, though more than likely it would just leave a bit of an orange stain (if that).

The brittleness means that as the leading edge of the puff impacts a surface at those speeds, it immediately begins to fragment/vaporize--the puff has very low cohesion so it doesn't want to really remain together in a single shape, and only a little energy is needed to make it break apart. As it breaks, some kinetic energy is imparted into what it's hitting, but a very large quantity of that kinetic energy is redirected to the sides, or at an angle (if it impacts in a non perpendicular way).

The low density means that it can crumple and has a fairly large volume/shape, meaning that the energy transfer from the puff to the solid panel it's colliding with is over more of a period of time as opposed to an instant (though at 15km/s it's all pretty 'instant'), though just like cars have 'crumple zones' to reduce/draw out the kinetic force imparted to the occupants, the low density/porous body of the cheeto would allow it to effectively slow down over a longer period--many materials, especially solid, can handle impact force imparted over time far better than impact force in an instant.

The high oil content and very low inertia are sort of the same point; in a vacuum, oil has the tendency to boil off and vaporize all on its own. The cheeto puff would lose its oil content, which in turn would significantly reduce the mass, in turn reducing the inertia (and at the same time decrease its density and increase its brittleness). It's very possible that by the time the cheeto impacts the ISS (depending where it was launched), it could very well be just a cheeto-puff shaped particulate cloud of corn and cheese particles, as the boiling of the oil may generate enough kinetic action within the puff to break it apart before the impact.

Please keep in mind that this is only my professional estimate, I cannot say for certain, but I think I know what I'm going to try and simulate during my lunch break. I have software specifically designed to model impact shock effects on various hardware and mechanical models.

P.S. This is also based around the big puffy cheeto puffs, not the thinner and far-crunchier variety (which have more mass and a higher density. The thinner crunchier ones could definitely do damage.

P.P.S. I'm the sort of engineer who has no qualms about running simulations on how fast you need to slap a chicken to cook it--I'm not the person who actually simulated that, but I get up to the same sort of shenanigans."

Small update: turns out the simulation software I've got can't model these sorts of impacts well (they're meant for more in-atmosphere impacts, think debris against panelling), and can't accurately model up to velocities of 15km/s... It also can't model the converting of mass to plasma... I need to figure out a good justification to my manager why I need to get a different modelling suite because I don't think 'I want to simulate a cheeto puff hitting the ISS' is gonna cut it," wrote one.

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But as ridiculous as this theory sounds, space junk is a real threat, even tiny fragments of it. In just September last year, the International Space Station just dodged a fast-moving hunk of orbiting junk and the three astronauts then currently living aboard the station — NASA's Chris Cassidy and cosmonauts Anatoli Ivanishin and Ivan Vagner — sheltered in the station's Russian segment during the maneuver to be closer to their Soyuz spacecraft, the NASA update stated.

This was done "out of an abundance of caution," the update said. "At no time was the crew in any danger."

The scientist who worked on the ISS, said in his comment that, "At the typical impact velocities in orbit, objects are moving faster than the speed of sound and carry more kinetic energy than it takes to turn them into plasma.

Critical areas of the ISS are protected by "Meteor/Debris Shields" (Whipple Shields). These are sheet metal spaced away from the module hull, air tanks, etc. So, the object and the part of the shield they hit are both turned to plasma, and sprays out in a cone. So the module hull isn't damaged unless it were a large object.

The solar arrays are the largest part of the Station by area, but they are a thin plastic backing with thin solar cells attached. They have been hit several times. All that happens is you punch a hole and lose one or two cells."

While how much damage the cheetos may do per se isn't as clear (and can't really be tested out) space debris does remain a serious problem: While space enthusiasts sit in their plush homes congratulating themselves over human exploits on Mars and the strong message we are sending to the extraterrestrials who are silently but surely noting everything we do, space is filling up with innumerable pieces of junk. Six thousand tons of it.

Recent estimates by experts and scientific models have found 128 million pieces of space debris aimlessly bobbing around in outer space. These account for only the ones that are 1mm in size or smaller. There are also 34,000 larger pieces that measure over 10 cm.

Read: Plastic Island: Space is Filling up with Junk but Elon Musk isn't Telling You That

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