LeoLabs, which uses its own ground-based radars to track spaceborne objects, sets the odds of collision at 10% or above. That’s high, but not uncommon, LeoLabs CEO Daniel Ceperley told CNN Business on Thursday.
But the U.S. military, which uses data from the world’s largest network of radars and telescopes, said its spaceflight management team discovered an “almost zero percent probability of collision.”
In response, LeoLabs Ceperley said in a statement on Friday morning: “We clearly have great respect for [US military’s] 18th Space Control Squadron and their estimates. No one denies that these objects came close to each other. “
Meanwhile, Moriba Jah, an astrodynamist at the University of Texas at Austin who has long sought to raise public awareness of the abundance of junk in Earth̵
Objects in space are tracked with telescopes and radar operated by governments and private companies. But all these organizations around the world are hesitant to share their data with each other. So when there is a chance that two things in space could collide, experts have an extremely difficult time figuring out exactly how high the risks are. LeoLabs does not share its data publicly.
Ceperley told CNN Business on Thursday that the company decided to raise public awareness of this particular event because the two objects are both large and because they are in a circuit area that is still relatively clean compared to nearby lanes. The company is also trying to raise more general awareness of the waste problem, he said, to encourage the private sector to develop funds to clean it up.
“Several times a week we see dead satellites coming within 100 meters of each other and moving at enormous speeds,” Ceperley said.
What happened on Thursday
The Soviet satellite, launched into space in 1989 and used for navigation, weighs nearly 2,000 pounds and is 55 feet long, according to Jonathan McDowell, an astronomer at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics. The rocket booster, which is part of a Chinese longship vehicle that was probably launched in 2009, is approx. 20 feet long. None of the objects are still in use.
If the rocket and satellite collided, it would have been the first time in more than a decade that two objects spontaneously collided in space – a situation that space experts have desperately hoped to avoid.
The last collision, in 2009, saw a dead Russian military satellite frame in an active communications satellite operated by the US-based telecommunications company Iridium. This event produced a massive cloud of debris, most of which is too small to track from the ground. And the wreck is still in orbit and poses a constant threat to nearby satellites.
McDowell explained on Twitter that a new collision would be “very bad.” The Soviet satellite and Chinese rocket launcher could have led to a 10% to 20% increase in the amount of debris in space, and each new piece of debris increases the likelihood of more collisions continuing.
Part of the problem is that outer space largely remains unregulated. The last broadly agreed international treaty governing the use of outer space has not been updated for five decades, leaving most of the space industry to the police themselves.