According to the space debris tracking service LeoLabs, an old, discarded Chinese rocket stage and a defunct Russian military satellite are expected to pass within 12 meters of each other on October 16, 2020 at 00:56 UTC.
According to LeoLabs, there is a greater than 10 percent chance that the two objects will collide at an altitude of 991 kilometers above the Weddell Sea just off the Antarctic Peninsula.
“This is possibly one of the possibly worst collisions we’ve seen in a while,” space archaeologist Alice Gorman of Flinders University in Australia told ScienceAlert.
The two objects are substantial, with a total mass of about 2,800 kilograms (6,170 pounds) and moving in opposite directions at a relative speed of 14.7 kilometers per second (9.1 miles per second). The rocket stage is part of a Long March 4B rocket that was launched on May 10, 1999. After the payload had been safely transported, the platform was discarded, as has been the case for decades.
The satellite is a Russian Parus military satellite, weighing approximately 825 kilograms, which was launched on February 22, 1989 and previously used for communications and navigation. It is no longer operational. Therefore, no object can be communicated with an object or maneuvered to avoid being smashed.
It’s similar to a situation early in the year where two old satellites are expected to fly past within 15 to 30 meters of each other and have a one in 100 chance of collision. They later sailed harmlessly past each other like ships in the night.
With this narrow approach, the possibility of a collision is made difficult by the shape of the spacecraft. The Parus satellite has a 17-meter boom that can easily fill the projected gap between them. However, the worst possible scenario would be when the two bodies collide.
Here on earth there is no risk for us, even if the potential collision were to take place in a densely populated area. The concern is that the two objects would create a shower of small debris. This would burn upon entering the atmosphere – but it’s more likely that it could hang around in low-earth orbit, creating hazards for other objects up there.
“Last year when India ran an anti-satellite test that caused about 400 cases of trackable debris. So we’d look at at least that number. And then of course there are all the little bits that are not trackable. “Said Gorman.
“We are not yet able to actively remove such debris. So it will be up there for a while. And because of the height of about 1,000 kilometers, this stuff won’t re-enter within such an area. ”Question of weeks or months. Some of it will likely be up there for some time to come. ”
While the collision rate is currently quite low – for the past 10 years they accounted for only 0.83 percent of all fragmentation events in low-earth orbit – there is concern that more severe collisions will quickly put us on the path to Kessler Syndrome.
This was predicted in 1978 by former NASA astrophysicist Donald Kessler, and it is said that with enough junk and debris in space, a runaway collision cascade will eventually result. A collision creates hundreds or thousands of pieces of trash that collide with others until the near-earth space is essentially unusable.
“We’re not at this point in Kessler syndrome. But how much closer does this bring us to that point in time? ”Gorman said.
“We are suddenly going to inject a large amount of debris that was unforeseen. And that means that other things are likely to collide with these debris. That just makes the situation a bit more complicated. ”
Of course, this is the worst case scenario. According to LeoLabs’ probability calculations, this is not likely here. But even if the two objects miss each other, it is only a matter of time before something large collides in near-Earth space, and we currently have no way of stopping it.
This event is a grim reminder that the space debris problem will only get worse if left to its own devices. The good news is that space agencies are working towards solutions. By far the largest generator of space debris is in orbit explosions caused by leftover fuel and batteries. Space agencies and aerospace companies begin planning missions at the end of the mission, e.g. B. emptying in orbit to minimize these risks.
And new technologies such as automated maneuvering to avoid collisions and the collection of space debris are in the works. So we just have to hope that we can continue to avoid major collisions until we have some better space debris mitigation techniques.
“My feeling about this is likely that it won’t happen just to be optimistic. But we have to wait, ”Gorman told ScienceAlert. “Let’s keep our fingers crossed.”
LeoLabs continues to monitor the situation. You can follow his reports on Twitter.
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