Physics KS3 / GCSE: The danger of orbital debris

Kevin Fong asks NASA astronaut and spacewalk veteran, Dan Tani, why space suits contain the same material as a bulletproof vest.

The astronaut explains that even tiny pieces of debris in space which are travelling very fast (relative to an astronaut) can be lethal.

Kevin uses a volunteer from the audience to demonstrate that no human can throw a piece of raw carrot hard enough to puncture a sheet of cardboard.

However, when pressurised air is used to accelerate the carrot stick to a very high velocity, its kinetic energy is very high indeed, and it punches straight through the cardboard.

This clip is from the Royal Institution Christmas Lectures 2015.

Teacher Notes

Key Stage 3

You could ask students to describe the energy transfers taking place during the demonstration.

Students could then research the materials that spacesuits are made from and explain why using ideas about properties.

Key Stage 4

Provide students with some data and challenge them to work out the kinetic energy of some objects that might be found in orbit.

The ISS travels at 7.66 km/s so an astronaut on a spacewalk passing through a stationary field of debris is at considerable risk!

Curriculum Notes

This clip will be relevant for teaching Physics.

This topic appears at KS3 and in OCR, Edexcel, AQA, WJEC KS4/GCSE in England and Wales, CCEA GCSE in Northern Ireland and SQA National 4/5 in Scotland.

More from the Royal Institution Christmas Lectures 2015

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How the vacuum of space effects the human body
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Resonant Frequency
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Orbital Rendezvous
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What does gas weigh?
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Why are bones weaker in orbit?
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How micro-gravity disorientates us
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Demonstrating radiation detectors
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Demonstrating heat shield material
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Why Earth rock is found on the Moon
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How Earth protects us from radiation
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Why tardigrades can survive in orbit
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How to recycle urine in space
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