A dead Soviet satellite and a dumped Chinese rocket crashed into space this week, but escaped a catastrophic crash Thursday night.
LeoLabs, a company that uses radar to track satellites and debris in space, said Tuesday it was seeing a very high-risk connection – an intersection in the orbits of the two objects around the Earth.
The company uses its radar grids to monitor each of the two sites as they pass overhead three or four times a day on Fridays.
Data show that the two large pieces of space debris missed by 8 to 43 meters (26 to 141 feet) at 8:56 p.m. ET on Thursday.
On Wednesday, when the expected distance to the pass was only 12 meters (19 feet), LeoLabs calculated a 10% chance that the objects would collide.
This may seem low, but NASA regularly relocates the International Space Station when the orbital laboratory faces only a 0.001
Since the Soviet satellite and the Chinese missile body are non-existent, no one could displace them. If they did collide, an explosion equivalent to the detonation of 14 metric tons of TNT would send pieces of debris rocketing in all directions, according to astronomer Jonathan McDowell.
But when the rocket’s body passed through LeoLabs radar just 10 minutes after the coincidence, there was only one object – “no traces of debris,” the company wrote on Twitter.
“Bullet got away,” McDowell said on Twitter. “But space debris is still a big problem.”
The collision would probably not pose a danger to anyone on Earth, as the satellites are 991 kilometers (616 miles) above the ground and cross paths over the Wedel Sea in Antarctica. But the resulting cloud of thousands of fragments of spacecraft would pose a danger in Earth orbit.
Experts from The Aerospace Corporation have calculated a much lower chance of a collision: only 1 in 23 billion as of Thursday morning, with objects expected to pass by about 70 meters (230 feet).
“The space debris community is constantly warning of all these close approaches, and we are not wrong or lying about this,” Ted Muhlhaupt, who heads The Aerospace Corporation’s space debris analysis, told Business Insider.
“Each of them is a low-probability event because the space is still really large. But when you take these objects and mix them, sooner or later you will see a profit. Most of our models are overdue for another big collision.”
Cosmic collisions make clouds of dangerous high-speed debris
Currently, about 130 million bits of space debris surround the Earth from abandoned satellites, crumbling spaceships and other missions. These debris move at approximately 10 times the speed of a bullet, which is fast enough to cause catastrophic damage to vital equipment, no matter how small the pieces.
Such a blow could kill astronauts on a spaceship.
Collisions between pieces of space debris exacerbate the problem as they fragment objects into smaller pieces.
“Every time there is a big collision, it’s a big change in LEO [low-Earth orbit] environment, “Dan Chaperley, CEO of LeoLabs, told Business Insider earlier.
Two events in 2007 and 2009 increased the amount of large debris in low Earth orbit by about 70 percent.
The first was a Chinese anti-satellite missile test in which China blew up one of its own weather satellites. Then, two years later, an American spacecraft accidentally collided with a Russian one.
“That’s why there’s a debris belt now,” Chaperley said.
In 2019, India conducted its own anti-satellite missile test and this explosion created about 6,500 pieces of debris larger than a tire.
The satellite that India blew up had a mass of less than a metric ton.
In combination, the Soviet satellite and the Chinese missile body, which have just passed against each other, have a mass of almost three metric tons (2,800 kilograms). Given these large sizes, the collision could create a significant cloud of dangerous debris.
High-risk satellite connections are becoming more common
This is not the first time LeoLabs has warned the world about the possibility of a high-risk satellite connection. In January, the company calculated a possible collision between a space telescope and an old satellite of the US Air Force.
The objects did not fall, but Chaperley said that because both satellites “were taken out of service, in fact no one was watching them closely.”
The U.S. Air Force, which is tracking satellites for the government, did not notify NASA of this potential collision, the space agency told Business Insider at the time.
Warnings from space junk experts are becoming more urgent after this imminent omission.
“We’ve recently seen a dramatic increase in the number of compounds,” Dan Altroge, an astrodynamicist who studies orbital debris at Analytical Graphics, Inc., told Business Insider.
Oltrogge uses a software system that collects and evaluates connection data over the past 15 years. The recent jump in orbital encounters, he added, “seems to be very well aligned with the new large-scale spacecraft that has been launched.”
The big constellations he has in mind are fleets of Internet satellites that companies such as SpaceX, Amazon and OneWeb are planning to launch. In total, the companies plan to launch more than 100,000 satellites by the end of the decade. SpaceX has already launched nearly 800 new satellites into Earth orbit since May 2019.
A wreckage disaster could cut off our access to space
If the problem with space debris becomes extreme, a chain of collisions could spiral out of control and orbit the Earth in an impassable field of debris. This possibility is known as the Kessler event, after Donald J. Kessler, who worked for NASA’s Johnson Space Center and calculated in a 1978 document that it could take hundreds of years for such debris to clear enough to make spaceflight safe again.
“This is a long-term effect that has been going on for decades and centuries,” Muelhaupt told Business Insider in January. “Anything that makes a lot of debris will increase that risk.”
The sheer number of objects in Earth’s orbit may already have a Kessler-like effect – a risk that Rocket Lab CEO Peter Beck described last week.
“This has a huge impact on the launch site,” he told CNN Business, adding that the missiles “should try to make their way between them.” [satellite] constellations. “
This article was originally published by Business Insider.
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