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US Air Force warns that US and Russian satellites are likely to collide at night



Genesis II
Image: Bigelow Aerospace

Earlier today, US private company Bigelow Aerospace was notified by the US Air Force that its Genesis II spacecraft had a small chance of hitting the dead . Russian spy satellite.

News of the potential orbital disruption came via Bigelow Aerospace's Twitter account .

"Today, we were informed by the US Air Force that there is a 5.6% probability of Genesis II colliding with a dead Russian Cosmos 1300 satellite in 15 hours," the tweet says. "Although this is relatively unlikely, it indicates that the Earth's low orbit is becoming more illuminated."

Bigelow Aerospace publishes its tweet at 1:30 PM ET. The collision, if it happens, will happen around 4:05 a.m. ET tomorrow (September 18, 2019) according to the company.

"Future habitable space stations will face this reality and danger," Bigelow continued in another tweet. "This proliferation, if not controlled by numbers, can become very dangerous for human life in low Earth orbit."

Genesis II is an experimental habitat that came out into space in 2007. It was effectively withdrawn in 2011. after the failure of a maneuver system that actually lasted two years longer than expected, said a spokesman for Bigelow by phone today at Gizmodo. Genesis II remains in orbit but no longer collects data.

According to a Bigelow spokeswoman, the US Air Force today said to the company that the chances of a potential collision of 5.6 percent are low enough and that the collisions are only considered dangerous or potentially significant at 10 percent or more. The spokesman said it was the first time the company had been warned by the US Air Force for a potential collision involving one of its spacecraft. Genesis II is one of the two Bigelow spacecraft currently in orbit, the other is Genesis I.

The existing Kosmos 1300 surveillance satellite, built and operated by the former Soviet Union, dates from 1981.

The spacecraft Genesis II is scheduled to go into orbit at some point in 2020, so destroying it won't be a big waste. The bigger concern is that a collision would produce a large amount of space debris, which in turn would increase the chances of further collisions, in a continuous cascade of orbit destruction.

The purpose of Bigelow's tweet, in addition to sharing the news, was to voice the company's concern about low Earth orbit, said Bigelow's spokesman. "We are seeing more space satellites and satellite swarms involving potentially thousands of satellites – and without restrictions and licenses," she says.

Although the concerns expressed by Bigelow are certainly valid, the fact is that a retired spacecraft of its own – which has lost its maneuverability – is at risk of being struck by an old, dead satellite from the beginning of [Inthe1980sinanincidentinvolvingnothingthatbeganafter2007Bigelow'sspokesmansaidthatanysatellitelaunchedbythecompanyinthefuture"willhaveitsownpropulsivecapability"whichshouldallowthecompanytoactivelyavoidcollisions

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The odds are approaching 6 percent and a collision is unlikely but still uncomfortably possible. In an email to Gizmodo, Jonathan McDowell, an astrophysicist at the Harvard-Smithsonian Astrophysics Center and satellite expert, said it was "much more likely than usual." Earlier this month, for example, ESA scared off when the U.S. Air Force informs the agency that its Aeolus satellite has a 1 in 10,000 chance of crashing into one of SpaceX's StarX satellites.

The relatively high collision ratios between Genesis II and Space 1300 may have something to do with the large size of both objects, McDowell said. Potential collisions between satellites occur frequently, but it seems to be a more serious example than usual.


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