Watch an experimental space shield shred a speeding bullet

video of bullet impact on test space shield

PACKS A PUNCH  Engineers are testing a new spacecraft shield by slamming a bullet into it at 7 kilometers per second.   

Fraunhofer Institute for High-Speed Dynamics

View the video

Engineers are taking a counterintuitive approach to protecting future spacecraft: shooting at their experiments. The image above and high-speed video below capture a 2.8-millimeter aluminum bullet plowing through a test material for a space shield at 7 kilometers per second. The work is an effort to find structures that could stand up to the impact of space debris.

Earth is surrounded by a cloud of debris, both natural — such as micrometeorites and comet dust, which create meteor showers — and unnatural, including dead satellites and the cast-off detritus of space launches. Those pieces of flotsam can damage other spacecraft if they collide at high speeds, and bits smaller than about a centimeter are hard to track and avoid, says ESA materials engineer Benoit Bonvoisin in a statement.

To defend future spacecraft from taking a hit, Bonvoisin and colleagues are developing armor made from fiber metal laminates, or several thin metal layers bonded together. The laminates are arranged in multiple layers separated by 10 to 30 centimeters, a configuration called a Whipple shield.

In this experiment at the Fraunhofer Institute for High-Speed Dynamics in Germany, the first layer shatters the aluminum bullet into a cloud of smaller pieces, which the second layer is able to deflect. This configuration has been used for decades, but the materials are new. The next step is to test the shield in orbit with a small CubeSat, Bonvoisin says.

FLASH BANG Watch as a bullet slams through the first layer of a new, experimental space shield, and a second layer deflects the shrapnel. Fraunhofer Institute for High-Speed Dynamics

Lisa Grossman is the astronomy writer. She has a degree in astronomy from Cornell University and a graduate certificate in science writing from University of California, Santa Cruz. She lives near Boston.

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