- An abandoned Chinese rocket stage and a Soviet-era satellite that almost collided with Earth overnight.
- The collision created a huge amount of new space debris and aggravated our current problem with junk space.
- As we continue to launch more and more satellites, the potential for space junk to affect connected missions
In case you haven’t heard: Space junk is becoming a real problem. There is so much man-made waste floating in Earth’s orbit that it actually poses a danger to future space missions and even ongoing programs like the International Space Station. This is bad, and for companies like SpaceX planning to launch thousands more satellites regularly, it will only get worse.
On Thursday night, the seriousness of our space junk problem became so clear that it looked like a former rocket stage from a mission in China was in the course of a collision with a dead Soviet satellite. Scientists have analyzed both objects in numbers and determined that there is a more than 10% chance that objects will collide, which is high and definitely worth attention. Fortunately, the two large pieces of space remnants have missed each other, but that does not mean we can go back to ignoring our sorrows in space.
I know what you’re thinking: “Okay, so an old, dead Soviet satellite almost hit a piece of a Chinese rocket. E what now?”
While it is true that any of the debris pieces are unusable or even essential to ongoing operation, a collision can be fatal. You see, when man-made objects in space run at each other at high speeds they create more debris as a result. That means two large objects become dozens, hundreds, or even thousands of smaller, but still dangerous objects that continue to orbit the Earth.
We track a very high risk factor between two large stationary objects in LEO. Multiple data points show the distance of miss <25m and Pc between 1% and 20%. The combined mass of both objects is ~ 2,800kg.
Object 1: 19826
Things 2: 36123
TCA: Oct 16 00:56UTC
Event altitude: 991km pic.twitter.com/6yWDx7bziw
– LeoLabs, Inc. (@LeoLabs_Space) October 13, 2020
Although these smaller objects can cause serious problems for galaxy missions, such a small number of bolts moving at high speeds can cause incredible damage. if it affects an important piece of cosmic machinery. If, forbidden by the sky, a crewed spacecraft runs on or is hit by a small, fast-moving piece of metal while heading to a galaxy station or to the Moon, the results can be disastrous.
On top of that, the smaller an object, the harder it is to track from Earth. Two big things are a problem, sure, but a thousand smaller things moving at different speeds and in new directions can spell disaster.
The good news, of course, is that the satellite and rocket stages did not collide. However, the risk of an event like this will not go away any time soon. Many countries have proposed ways to clean up Earth’s orbit and remove larger pieces of waste from space, but to date, little progress has been made.