This week, a dead Soviet satellite and the rejected body of a Chinese rocket hurried opposite each other in space, but escaped a catastrophic crash on Thursday night.
LeoLabs, which uses radar stations to track satellites and debris in space, said on Tuesday it was monitoring a “very high-risk” connection – the intersection of two objects in orbit around the Earth.
The company used its radar grids to monitor each of the two facilities as they passed overhead three to four times a day from Friday.
Evidence suggests that two large pieces of space debris missed each other by 8 to 43 meters (26 to 141 feet) at 8:56 p.m. Thursday.
On Wednesday, when the estimated distance was only 12 meters (19 feet), LeoLabs calculated a 10 percent chance of objects colliding.
This may seem low, but NASA regularly relocates the International Space Station when the orbital laboratory faces only a 0.001 percent (1 in 100,000) chance of colliding with the object.
Because the Soviet satellite and the Chinese missile corps did not work, no one could push them apart. If they collided, an explosion roughly equivalent to an explosion of 14 metric tons of TNT would send pieces of debris in all directions, according to astronomer Jonathan McDowell.
But when the rocket’s body passed over LeoLabs radar just 10 minutes after the connection, there was only one object – “no signs of debris,” the company wrote on Twitter.
“The bullet dodged,” McDowell said on Twitter. “But space debris is still a big problem.”
It is possible that the collision would not pose a danger to anyone on Earth, as the satellites are 991 kilometers (616 miles) above the earth and cross paths over the Weddell Sea in Antarctica. But the resulting cloud of thousands of fragments of the spacecraft could 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, and the objects are projected to pass each other by about 70 meters.
“The space debris community is constantly warning about all these close approaches, and we’re not mistaken or lying about it,” said Ted Muhlhaupt, who oversees The Aerospace Corporation’s space debris analysis.
“Any of them is a low-probability event because the space is still really large. But when you take these items and mix them, sooner or later you’ll see a win. For most of our models, we’re too late for another serious collision.”
Space collisions make clouds of dangerous high-speed debris
About 130 million bits of space debris currently surround the Earth from abandoned satellites, crumbling spacecraft, and other missions. This debris moves about 10 times faster than a bullet, which is fast enough to cause destructive damage to vital equipment, no matter how small the pieces.
Such a blow could kill astronauts on a spaceship.
A collision between pieces of space debris exacerbates the problem because 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.
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 test of an anti-satellite missile, during which China blew up one of its own weather satellites. Then, two years later, an American spacecraft accidentally collided with a Russian one.
“Because of that, there’s a garbage belt right now,” Chaperley said.
India conducted its own tests of anti-satellite missiles in 2019, and this explosion created an estimated 6,500 wreckage larger than an eraser.
The mass of the satellite that blew up India was less than one metric ton.
Together, the Soviet satellite and the Chinese rocket hull, which had just sailed next to each other, weighed almost three metric tons (2,800 kilograms). Given these large sizes, the collision could create a significant cloud of hazardous debris.
High-risk satellites are becoming more common
This is not the first time LeoLabs has warned the world about the possibility of connecting high-risk satellites. In January, the company calculated a possible collision between a dead space telescope and an old satellite of the US Air Force.
The facilities did not crash, but Chaperley said that because both satellites were “decommissioned, mostly no one was watching them closely.”
The U.S. Air Force, which tracks satellites for the government, did not report such a potential collision to NASA, the space agency Business Insider reported at the time.
Experts’ warnings about space debris have only intensified since the miss.
“We’ve recently seen a sharp rise in the number of connectors,” said Dan Altrogge, an astrodynamicist who studies orbital debris at Analytical Graphics, Inc., Business Insider.
Oltrogge uses a software system that collects and evaluates connection data over the past 15 years. The recent rise in orbital encounters, he added, “looks very well coordinated with the new large-constellation spacecraft that has been launched.”
The big constellations he refers to are the Internet satellite fleets 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 released almost 800 new satellites into Earth orbit since May 2019.
A garbage catastrophe could block our access to space
If the problem of space debris became extreme, the chain of collisions could get out of control and surround the Earth in an impassable field of debris. This possibility is known as the Kessler event, after Donald J. Kessler, who worked at NASA’s Johnson Space Center and calculated in a 1978 article 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 rubbish will increase that risk.”
A huge number of objects in Earth’s orbit may already have an effect similar to Kessler’s – a risk described last week by Rocket Lab CEO Peter Beck.
“It has a huge impact on the launch site,” he told CNN Business, adding that the missiles “should try to break through between them.” [satellite] constellation “.
This article was originally published by Business Insider.
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