Phew! 2 large parts of the space junk race safely...

Phew! 2 large parts of the space junk race safely...
Phew! 2 large parts of the space junk race safely...
It looks like humanity has just dodged a rather large ball of space junk.

Two large pieces of Orbitalschutt – a defunct Soviet navigation satellite and a used up Chinese missile – apparently whizzed past each other safely over the South Atlantic on Thursday evening (October 15).

The California-based aerospace company LeoLabs alerted the world in advance on the close approach that occurred at 8:56 p.m. EDT (1256 GMT on October 16) when the two ships flew 991 kilometers above the earth on a path that led them over a region off the coast of Antarctica. The analyzes before the encounter by LeoLabs indicated that the two objects would only miss each other by 25 meters (plus or minus 18 m) – numbers that made a collision very much a factor. In fact, LeoLabs calculated the probability of a smashup to be greater than 10%.

Space Debris Explained: The Threat of Debris In Orbit (Infographic)

However, the scans after the company’s encounter suggest that the nightmare scenario did not materialize.

“No signs of a collision. CZ-4C R / B passed the LeoLabs Kiwi Space Radar 10 minutes after TCA. Our data only shows a single object, as we hoped, with no evidence of debris. We will follow up in the coming days. ”On Medium with a comprehensive risk assessment of this event! “LeoLabs

. (CZ-4C R / B is the Chinese missile body, Kiwi Space Radar is the company’s New Zealand tracking array, and TCA stands for Time of Nearest Approach.)

“Nightmare scenario” is not really an exaggeration. The dead Russian satellite and the Chinese missile body have a combined mass of approximately 6,170 lbs. (2,800 kilograms), LeoLabs said in a

(October 13). The two bodies raced towards each other at a relative speed of 52,950 km / h, so that a collision would have been incredibly destructive and would have produced a huge cloud of debris.

A smashup would likely have resulted in a “significant (10 to 20 percent) increase in LEO [low Earth orbit] Debris Environment “, astronomer and satellite tracker Jonathan McDowell, who works at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics,


This debris environment is already significant. Scientists estimate that around 34,000 objects that are more than 10 centimeters wide are currently whizzing around the earth European space agency. And the numbers get scarier the smaller you go. There are likely 900,000 or so orbital objects between 1 and 10 cm (0.4 in. And 4 in.) Wide and 128 million in the range of 1 mm to 1 cm (0.04 in. To 0.4 in.) Wide.

Even these tiny spots can cause significant damage to a satellite thanks to its high speeds. For example, at an altitude of 400 km – the height of the International Space Station that had to be Maneuver away from three possible space junk collisions In 2020 alone, objects will roll at a speed of 28,600 km / h.

Orbital collisions are not just the stuff of science fiction films like “Gravity” from 2013. In 2009, for example, a defunct Russian military satellite called Kosmos 2251 was struck in the operational communication satellite Iridium 33 and created 1,800 trackable debris until the following October (and many others too small to be monitored).

And madly enough, mankind has purposely created debris clouds on two separate occasions – the destructive tests of anti-satellite technology conducted by 2007 and 2019 China and If, respectively.

The debris problem will only increase as more satellites launch into space – a trend that is accelerating as the cost of both launch and satellite development continues to decline. And the problem could get out of hand and threaten space travel and exploration activities if we don’t address it now. Many experts say

“The bullet dodged via @Leolabs_space. But space debris is still a big problem, ”said McDowell


Mike Wall is the author of Out There (Grand Central Publishing, 2018; illustrated by Karl Tate), a book about the search for another’s life. Follow him on Twitter @michaeldwall. Follow us on Twitter @Spacedotcom or .

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