- A discarded Chinese rocket stage and a Soviet-era satellite almost collided over Earth overnight.
- The collision would have created a huge amount of new space debris and made our current space debris problem even worse.
- As we continue to launch more and more satellites, the potential for space debris to impact manned missions increases.
If you had not already heard: Space junk is becoming a real problem. There is so much man-made waste floating around the Earth’s orbit that it actually poses a danger to future space missions and even ongoing programs like the International Space Station. It̵
On Thursday night, the seriousness of our space junk problem became very clear when it looked like an old rocket stage from a Chinese mission was about to collide with an already dead Soviet satellite. Researchers monitoring both objects crushed the numbers, finding that there was an over 10% chance that the objects would collide, which is quite high and certainly worth noting. Thankfully, the two large pieces of space debris missed each other, but that does not mean we can return to ignoring our unwanted space.
I know what you’re thinking: “Okay, so an old, dead Soviet satellite almost hit a piece of a Chinese rocket. So what?”
While it is true that none of the pieces were functional or even important to ongoing operations, a collision could still have been catastrophic. You see, when man-made objects in space run into each other at high speeds, they create even more waste as a result. This means that two large objects become dozens, hundreds or even thousands of smaller but still dangerous objects that continue to orbit the earth.
We monitor a very high risk link between two large decommissioned objects in LEO. Several data points show miss distance <25m and PC between 1% and 20%. Combined mass of both objects is ~ 2,800 kg.
Object 1: 19826
Object 2: 36123
TCA: October 16, 00:56 PM
Event altitude: 991 km pic.twitter.com/6yWDx7bziw
– LeoLabs, Inc. (@LeoLabs_Space) October 13, 2020
Even these smaller objects can cause serious problems for space tasks, as something as small as a bolt moving at high speeds can cause incredible damage if it affects a vital piece of cosmic machinery. If a spacecraft with crew, the sky forbids, runs into or is hit by a small, fast-moving piece of metal as it makes its way to the space station or the Moon, the results can be catastrophic.
On top of that, the smaller an object is, the harder it is to track from Earth. Two large objects are certainly a problem, but a thousand smaller objects moving at different speeds and in new directions can spell disaster.
The good news, of course, is that the satellite and rocket phases did not collide. However, the risk of such an event happening does not disappear soon. Several countries have suggested ways to clean up orbits the earth and remove larger pieces of space debris, but so far there has been very little progress.