To see a satellite image of the field of space debris that floats around the earth is like looking at fleas swarming an unfortunate dog. About a half-million pieces of debris are the size of a marble, but even tiny pieces that travel more than 17,000 miles per hour could be deadly to a spacecraft with astronauts.
Researchers from the University of Michigan and NASA have developed a self-healing material that could instantly plug up a hole in the hull of a ship just milliseconds after impact.
The material is made from polymer panels that sandwich a fast-acting liquid resin that would leak and instantly harden if it came into contact with the oxygen inside a spacecraft.
Space debris comes in two forms – natural, like from meteoroids, and man-made, which is the result of disintegrating satellites and other spacecraft.
Surprisingly, there have been no fatal collisions, though there have been satellites that have collided with space junk, exploding and adding to the debris field. NASA and the Department of Defense track more than 21,000 pieces of debris that are larger than a softball and could pose some sort of risk.
Space debris is no joke for the continuously orbiting International Space Station, which sometimes conduct maneuvers to avoid collisions with pieces of debris. The space station is girded for debris impact by a series of impact shields that are mounted off the hull. Astronauts also have to evacuate to certain parts of the space station whenever an alarm goes off warning of approaching debris.
Should the International Space Station or any other long-duration spacecraft ever get outfitted with resin-filled polymer panels, the seal would only be strong enough to give a crew time to make more extensive repairs.
The video below demonstrates the action the special resin takes when a bullet hits a panel.