A dead Soviet satellite and a discarded Chinese rocket body exploded into space this week, but avoided a catastrophic crash Thursday night.
LeoLabs, a company that uses radar to track satellites and dirt in space, said Tuesday that it is monitoring a “very high-risk connection” – a cross in the two objects’ orbit around the Earth.
The company has used its radar arrays to observe each of the two objects as they pass overhead three or four times a day since Friday.
The data suggest that the two large pieces of scrap metal missed each other by 8 to 43 meters (26 to 141 feet) at. 20:56 ET Thursday.
On Wednesday, when the estimated miss distance was only 12 meters (19 feet), LeoLabs calculated a 1
It may seem low, but NASA routinely moves the International Space Station when that orbital laboratory only has a 0.001 percent (1 in 100,000) chance of colliding with an object.
Since the Soviet satellite and the Chinese rocket body are both decommissioned, no one could move them out of each other’s way. If they collided, an explosion roughly equivalent to the detonation of 14 tons of TNT would have sent bits of dirt in all directions, according to astronomer Jonathan McDowell.
But when the rocket body passed a LeoLabs radar just 10 minutes after the coupling, there was only one object there – “no sign of dirt”, the twitter company said.
“Bullet dodged,” McDowell said on Twitter. “But space debris is still a big issue.”
A collision would probably not have posed a danger to anyone on Earth, as the satellites are 991 kilometers above the earth and crossed paths over the Antarctic Weddell Sea. But the resulting cloud of thousands of spacecraft fragments would have been a danger in Earth’s orbit.
Experts from The Aerospace Corporation had calculated much lower odds of collision: only 1 in 23 billion from Thursday morning, when the objects are expected to miss each other by approx. 70 meters (230 feet).
“The space waste community is constantly warning of all these close approaches, and we are not mistaken or lying about this,” Ted Muelhaupt, who oversees Aerospace Corporation’s analysis of space waste, told Business Insider.
“Any given of them is an event of low probability because the space is still really large. But when you take these objects and you mix them together, you will sooner or later see a payout. Of most of our models are too late for another major collision. “
Space collisions create clouds of hazardous high-speed debris
Nearly 130 million bits of space debris currently surround the Earth from abandoned satellites, spacecraft that broke apart, and other missions. This dirt moves about ten times the speed of a bullet, which is fast enough to inflict catastrophic damage on vital equipment, no matter how small the pieces are.
Such a hit could kill astronauts on a spacecraft.
Collisions between pieces of space debris exacerbate the problem as they fragment objects into smaller pieces.
“Every time there is a big collision, it is a big change in LEO [low-Earth orbit] environment, “Dan Ceperley, CEO of LeoLabs, previously told Business Insider.
Two events in 2007 and 2009 increased the amount of large debris in a low-ground orbit by about 70 percent.
The first was a Chinese test of an anti-satellite missile in which China blew up one of its own weather satellites. Two years later, a US spacecraft accidentally collided with a Russian.
“Because of that, there is now a kind of waste belt,” Ceperley said.
India conducted its own anti-satellite missile test in 2019, and this explosion created an estimated 6,500 pieces of debris larger than an eraser.
The satellite that India blew up had a mass of less than a ton.
Combined, the Soviet satellite and the Chinese rocket body, which just fit each other, have a mass of almost three tons (2,800 kg). Given these large sizes, a collision could have created a significant cloud of hazardous waste.
High-risk satellite conjunctions are becoming more common
This is not the first time LeoLabs has warned the world about the possibility of a high-risk satellite injection. In January, the company calculated a possible collision between a dead space telescope and an old US Air Force satellite.
The objects did not crash, but Ceperley said that because both satellites “were wound up, basically no one was watching them.”
The U.S. Air Force, which tracks satellites to the government, did not notify NASA of the potential collision, the space agency Business Insider said at the time.
The experts’ warnings about the volume have only become more urgent since the next miss.
“We are recently seeing a definite increase in the number of conjunctions,” said Dan Oltrogge, an astrodynamic who studies orbital waste at Analytical Graphics, Inc., Business Insider.
Oltrogge uses a software system that has collected and evaluated conjunction data for the past 15 years. The recent uptick in orbital encounters, he added, “seems to be very well adapted to the new large constellation spacecraft that has been launched.”
The major constellations he refers to are fleets of Internet satellites that companies like SpaceX, Amazon and OneWeb plan to launch. In total, companies plan to launch more than 100,000 satellites by the end of this decade. SpaceX has already launched almost 800 new satellites into Earth’s orbit since May 2019.
A waste disaster could cut off our access to space
If the space-unwanted problem became extreme, a chain of collisions could get out of control and surround the Earth in an impassable dirt field. This possibility is known as a Kessler event after Donald J. Kessler, who worked for NASA’s Johnson Space Center and in a 1978 paper calculated that it could take hundreds of years before such debris cleaned up enough to make space travel safe again. .
“It’s a long-term effect that takes place over decades and centuries,” Muelhaupt told Business Insider in January. “Anything that does a lot of waste will increase that risk.”
The large number of objects in Earth’s orbit may already have a Kessler-like effect – a risk that Rocket Labs CEO Peter Beck described last week.
“This has a massive impact on the launch side,” he told CNN Business, adding that rockets “have to try to weigh up between these [satellite] constellations. “
This article was originally published by Business Insider.
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