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A Weird Debate Online Looks Into Whether a Single Cheeto Could Destroy the ISS

A user who claims to be part of the team that designed the International Space Station thinks that the Cheeto might break a solar cell or two if it were to collide with the station.
cheetos and the International space station
Photo: Scott Ehardt, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons (left) and NASA/Roscosmos

Do you ever think of questions that you know you’ll probably never have the answers to, but it would be nice if you could? Like “what is the meaning of life?” or “who would destroy who in a standoff between a Cheeto and the International Space Station (ISS)?” Yeah, me neither.

But recently, a user shared their seven-year-old’s curious question about exactly the latter question, sending Reddit into a frenzy. The debate saw professional aerospace engineers and 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. 


But there is no consensus on how much destruction it could cause along the way.

Turns out, this isn’t just a nonsensical question resulting from childlike curiosity. Space collisions are a real risk, even when involving a single scrawny Cheeto. Only in September last year, astronauts aboard the ISS had to take shelter as it dodged a fast-moving chunk of space debris that ultimately passed by within less than a mile from the station. And with space junk becoming a growing problem, questions like this one could be pertinent.

Redditors think that upon impact, the Cheeto is likely to dissipate into a cloud of plasma, making it less dangerous than if it were a solid, compact object.

“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),” said a user who goes by Letter_13, and self-identified as an aerospace engineer.


According to them, being in space would only weaken the Cheeto’s destructive powers.

“In a vacuum, oil has the tendency to boil off and vaporize all on its own. The cheeto puff would lose its (high) 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),” they added.

Letter_13 further said that according to their professional estimate, the most the Cheeto could do is leave an orange stain on the ISS, if that.

But another Redditor, who goes by danielravennest and claims to be part of the team that designed the ISS, wasn’t as optimistic. Instead, they said the potential damage depends more on where the Cheeto hits the ISS.

They did say that there’s a possibility the ISS could lose a solar cell or two in the fight, if the Cheeto were to crash the thin plastic backing that forms its solar arrays. They’ve also been torn in the past, and have needed astronauts to repair them. However, the more critical areas of the ISS would be safe if this showdown were ever to happen.

“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,” danielravennest wrote. 

“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 on impact, 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.”

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