A dead Soviet satellite and a thrown Chinese rocket body crashed into each other in space this week, but a fatal crash on Thursday night was avoided.
LeoLabs, a company that uses radar to track satellites and debris in space, said Tuesday it is tracking a “very risky” integration – an intersection in the orbits of two objects around Earth.
The company has used its radar arrays to observe each of the two objects over overhead three or four times per day since Friday.
The data suggests that two large pieces of space junk missed each other by 8 to 43 meters (26 to 141 feet) at 8:56 pm ET on Thursday.
This Wednesday, if the estimated miss distance is only 12 meters (19 feet), LeoLabs calculates the 10 percent probability of colliding with objects.
That may seem low, but NASA regularly shifts the International Space Station when the orbiting laboratory only faces a 0.001 percent (1-in-100,000) chance or more of an object collision.
Since the Soviet satellite and Chinese rocket bodies were both gone, no one could move them out of each other’s way. If they collided, an explosion equivalent to the explosion of TNT’s 14 metric tones would send pieces of rocket debris in all directions, according to astronomer Jonathan McDowell.
But when the rocket body passed a LeoLabs radar just 10 minutes after the integration, there was only one thing there – “no signs of debris,” the company tweeted.
“Avoid the bullet,” McDowell said on Twitter. “But space debris is still a big problem.”
A collision probably did not pose a threat to anyone on Earth, as satellites were 991 kilometers (616 miles) above the ground and crossed paths above the Weddell Sea of Antarctica. But the resulting cloud of thousands of aircraft fragments could be a threat to Earth’s orbit.
Experts at The Aerospace Corporation calculated lower collision odds: only 1 in 23 billion on Thursday morning, with items expected to miss each of nearly 70 meters (230 feet).
“The debris community is constantly warning about all of these approaches, and we are not wrong or lying about it,” said Ted Muelhaupt, who oversees space-debris testing at The Aerospace Corporation , in Business Insider.
“Anything given to one of them is a low probability, because the gap is still really big. But when you take these things and you mix them up, sooner or later you will find a compensation. By most in our models we ended up for another major collision. “
Space collisions make clouds of dangerous debris fast
Nearly 130 million pieces of space junk currently orbit the Earth, from abandoned satellites, spacecraft spacecraft, and other missions. Those debris travels at almost 10 times the speed of a bullet, which is fast enough to cause harmful damage to vital equipment, no matter how small the pieces.
Such a hit could kill astronauts in a spacecraft.
Collisions between pieces of garbage in the space make the problem worse because they scatter objects in 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 volume of large remains in the low orbit of the Earth by almost 70 percent.
The first was a Chinese test on an anti-satellite missile, in which China blew up one of its own satellite satellites. Two years later, an American spacecraft accidentally collided with a Russian.
“Because of that, now there’s a kind of lip belt,” Ceperley said.
India conducted its own anti-satellite missile test in 2019, and that explosion created an estimated 6,500 pieces of debris larger than an eraser.
The satellite blown by India has a mass of less than a tonne scale.
Combined, the Soviet satellite and the Chinese rocket body that only took care of each other had a mass of about three metric tones (2,800 kilos). Because of those large dimensions, a collision can create a significant cloud of dangerous debris.
High-risk satellite connections are becoming more common
This is not the first time LeoLabs has alerted the world to the possibility of a high-risk satellite synchronization. In January, the company calculated a possible collision between a dead telescope and an old US Air Force satellite.
Things did not crash, but Ceperley said that because both satellites “were decommissioned, usually no one was watching them.”
The U.S. Air Force, which tracks satellites for the government, did not notify NASA of the potential collision, the space agency told Business Insider at the time.
Expert warnings about space waste have only grown more rapidly since the near miss.
“We recently saw a decided increase in the number of connections,” Dan Oltrogge, an astrodynamicist who studies orbital remains at Analytical Graphics, Inc., told Business Insider.
Oltrogge uses a software system that collects and analyzes synchronization data over the last 15 years. The recent increase in orbital encounters, he added, “seems to be well aligned with the new-large spacecraft constellation launched.”
The large constellations he refers to are fleets of internet satellites that companies such as SpaceX, Amazon, and OneWeb are planning to launch. In total, companies plan to launch more than 100,000 satellites by the end of the decade. SpaceX has been able to rocket nearly 800 new satellites in Earth orbit from May 2019.
A catastrophic waste can disrupt our access to space
If the space-junk problem is to become severe, a chain of collisions can rotate out of control and surround the Earth in an impassable field of debris. This possibility is known as an event in Kessler, after Donald J. Kessler, who worked for NASA’s Johnson Space Center and calculated in a paper in 1978 that it could take hundreds of years for such remains to be cleaned enough to make spaceflight safe again.
“This is a lasting effect that has been going on for decades and hundreds of centuries,” Muelhaupt told Business Insider in January. “Anything that makes a lot of debris will increase that risk.”
The volume of objects in Earth’s orbit could already have a Kessler-like effect – a danger described by Rocket Lab CEO Peter Beck last week.
“This has a huge impact on the launch side,” he told CNN Business, adding that the rockets “need to try and weave their way all the way between them. [satellite] constellations. “
This article was originally published by Business Insider.
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