It seems that humanity has just escaped from quite a lot of space debris.
Two large pieces of orbital debris – a non-existent Soviet navigation satellite and a spent Chinese missile – apparently flew safely over each other high over the South Atlantic on Thursday evening (October 15th).
The California-based space tracking company LeoLabs alerted the world some time ago to the close approach, which occurred at 8:56 p.m. EDT (1256 GMT on October 16), when the two vessels flew 991 kilometers above Earth just off the coast of Antarctica.
LeoLabs’ pre-match analysis suggests that the two objects will be missed by only 25 feet (25 meters), plus or minus 59 feet (1
Explained space debris: The threat of orbital debris (infographic)
There is no indication of a collision. The ZCZ-4C R / B passed over LeoLabs Kiwi Space Radar 10 minutes after TCA. Our data show only one object, as we hoped, without traces of debris. We will continue in the coming days at Medium with a full in-depth risk assessment of this event! October 16, 2020
But the company’s scans after meetings suggest that the nightmare scenario did not materialize.
“There are no indications of a collision. The CZ-4C R / B passed over LeoLabs’ KiL space radar 10 minutes after TCA. Our data shows only one object, as we had hoped, with no traces of debris. We will follow in the coming days on Medium with full in-depth risk assessment of this event! “LeoLabs tweet on Thursday night. (CZ-4C R / B is the Chinese rocket body, Kiwi Space Radar is the company’s New Zealand tracking array, and TCA means “closest approach time.”)
A “nightmare scenario” is not really an exaggeration. The dead Russian satellite and the Chinese missile body have a total mass of about 6,170 pounds. (2,800 pounds), LeoLabs said tweet on tuesday (October 13). The two bodies were throwing at each other at a relative speed of 32,900 miles per hour (52,950 km / h), so the collision would be incredibly destructive, spawning in a cloud of debris.
The breakdown would likely lead to a “significant (10 to 20 percent) increase in LEO [low Earth orbit] debris, “astronomer and satellite tracker Jonathan McDowell, who is based at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics, said via Twitter on Wednesday.
This environment is already significant. Scientists estimate that about 34,000 objects more than 10 centimeters wide are currently orbiting the Earth, according to European Space Agency. And the numbers get scarier the younger you get. There are probably about 900,000 orbital objects with a width of 0 to 4 inches (1 to 10 cm) in orbit and 128 million in the range of 0.04 inches to 0.4 inches (1 mm to 1 cm).
Even these small spots can cause significant damage to the satellite, thanks to the high speeds involved. For example, 400 miles above – the altitude of the International Space Station, which was necessary maneuvering away from three potential space debris collisions only in 2020 – the objects are moving on a barrel at a speed of 28,500 km / h.
For @Leolabs_space, the bullet escaped. But space debris is still a big problem. October 16, 2020
Orbital collisions are not just things from science fiction movies like Gravity from 2013. In 2009, for example, a non-existent Russian military satellite called Cosmos 2251 crashed into the Iridium 33 operational communications satellite, generating 1800 pieces of traceable fragments until next October (and many others, too small to observe).
And, as crazy as it is, humanity has deliberately created clouds of debris on two separate occasions – during destructive tests of anti-satellite technology conducted in 2007 and 2019 by China and India, respectively.
The problem of debris will continue to grow as more and more satellites launch into space, a trend that is accelerating due to the continuing reduction in the cost of both launch and satellite development. And the problem could get out of hand, seriously threatening space flight and exploration, if we don’t start tackling it now, say many experts
“On @Leolabs_space, the bullet escaped. But space debris is still a big problem,” McDowell told another tweet on Thursday night.
Mike Wall is the author of “There” (Grand Central Publishing, 2018; illustrated by Carl Tate), a book about the search for extraterrestrial life. Follow him on Twitter @michaeldwall. Follow us on Twitter @Spacedotcom or Facebook.