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Space safety: when astronauts zoom toward the stars, Shannon Ryan makes sure their spacecraft is safe. He's a space-debris protection engineer.

WHAT DOES A SPACE-DEBRIS PROTECTION ENGINEER DO?

I design and test protection systems for NASA's manned spacecraft. These systems shield spacecraft from material that could crash into the vehicle, causing great danger to astronauts. Natural objects, like meteoroids (space rocks), and human made objects (like pieces of old satellites) are extremely dangerous to spacecraft. These objects travel at very high speeds, and could release a lot of energy if they were to hit a spacecraft. An Impact, or crash, with a marble-size piece of debris traveling at 10 kilometers/second (22,000 miles/hour) releases as much energy as a hand grenade!

WHAT ARE THE NECESSARY SKILLS FOR YOUR JOB?

Engineers need to be good at mathematics and problem solving. I often publish my work in professional journals, so sharp writing skills are also important.

WHAT IS THE BEST PART OF YOUR JOE?

After a space mission, I go to Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral, Florida, to inspect the shuttle. I look for any impacts it might have received. It's amazing to see the shuttle up close!

WHAT IS THE WORST PART OF YOUR JOB?

It can be quite stressful because, as the famous NASA saying goes, "Failure is not an option." If we make a mistake, we could see a repeat of the Columbia disaster. [The spaceshuttle Columbia broke apart upon returning to Earth in 2003. The accident was caused by debris that fell off the shuttle's tank during liftoff, damaging its wing. All of the astronauts aboard died.]

HOW CAN KIDS GET STARTED NOW?

NASA has projects, activities, and podcasts on its Web site. [Visit www.scholastic.com/supersclence for more information.]

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HOW MUCH MONEY CAN A PERSON EARN IN THIS FIELD?

An entry-level engineer earns about $50,000 a year, while managers can earn $150,000 or more. The private aerospace industry often pays more.

WHAT'S NEXT FOR SPACE EXPLORATION?

In his new national spending plan, President Barack Obama is putting manned missions to the moon on hold. Obama wants NASA to develop new technology and focus on robotic missions. My group will focus on supporting these missions. The President hopes that creating new technology will advance our understanding of Earth and our solar system.

BEFORE READING

Set a Purpose

Learn how a NASA engineer helps keep manned spacecraft safe from debris.

Background

* Orbital debris is any man-made object orbiting the Earth that no longer serves a useful purpose. These objects can include broken-up satellites and pieces of spacecraft. Approximately 19,000 orbital-debris objects larger than 10 centimeters (4 inches) are known to exist.

* Satellite explosions and collisions are the main source of orbital debris. The intentional destruction of a weather satellite by China in 2007 and the accidental collision of American and Russian communications satellites in 2009 greatly increased the number of large pieces of debris in orbit.

Discussion Question

* Why do you think the amount of orbital debris has increased so rapidly in the 21st century? (Answer: Over the past decade, there have been more-frequent missions to space to service the International Space Station and to deploy satellites, which are used in a wide range of industries. All this space traffic and satellite usage can create orbital debris.)

AFTER READING

Discussion Question

* According to Newton's second law of motion, a force is equal to an object's mass times its acceleration (F=ma). Since a small chunk of space debris is capable of creating a great force, what part of Newton's law do you think gives space debris the potential to create a powerful force? (Answer: Acceleration. Space debris is traveling at very fast speeds and its collision with another object causes a great change in acceleration.

RESOURCE

* http://science.howstuffworks.com/space-junk.htm To learn more about space junk, check out this How StuffWorks site.
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Title Annotation:cool science jobs
Author:Majerol, Veronica
Publication:SuperScience
Article Type:Interview
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Apr 1, 2010
Words:633
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