Satellites collide, create major flying junk pile

NASA said about 20 satellites are in orbits that would take them close to the debris cloud

Junk in low orbit
It was perhaps inevitable that satellites would collide in space.  Indeed that happened Tuesday when an Iridium satellite smacked into an inactive Russian Cosmos-2251 military satellite.

The crash happened almost 500 miles above Siberia, reports said.

"The collision of these two space apparatuses happened by chance and these two apparatuses have been destroyed," Major-General Alexander Yakushin, first deputy commander of Russia's Space Forces, told Reuters. "The fragments pose no danger whatsoever to Russian space objects," he said. When asked if the debris posed a danger to other nations' space craft, he said: "As for foreign ones, it is not for me say as it is not in my competency."

NASA said about 20 satellites are in orbits that would take them close to the debris cloud.

But there are many hundreds of other satellites -- nearly 1,000 currently in operation, among some 6,600 satellites that have been launched since Sputnik in 1957, according to a 2007 estimate by Jonathan McDowell, an astronomer at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics, a Washington Post article stated.

According to NASA's Orbital Debris Office, the number and magnitude of space debris has grown significantly in the past 20 years.  For example, it notes that Two years after the Chinese zapped their Fengyun-1C meteorological satellite the resultant debris cloud remains pervasive throughout low Earth orbit (LEO), accounting for more than 25% of all cataloged objects. A total of 2378 fragments greater than 5 cm in diameter have been officially cataloged by the US Space Surveillance Network from the one-metric-ton vehicle, and more than 400 additional debris are being tracked but have not yet been cataloged. The estimated population of debris larger than 1 cm is greater than 150,000. The debris cloud, which poses collision risks to all operational spacecraft in LEO and in elliptical orbits passing through LEO, now completely envelopes the Earth.

Since the office's creation on 11 January 2007, less than 2% of the cataloged debris have fallen back to Earth. Many of the debris will stay in orbit for decades, and some for more than a century, the office stated.

At the moment the main concern is keeping the International Space Station, which orbits at 220 miles out of harms way.  Russian space officials said they see no immediate damage to the ISS.

There are actually debris from this event which we believe are going through space station altitude already," he said. The risk to the station, Mr. Johnson added, "is going to be very, very small." In the worst case, he said, "We'll just dodge them if we have to. It's the small things you can't see that are the ones that can do you harm," Nicholas  Johnson, chief scientist for orbital debris at NASA told the New York Times.

In an Orlando Sentinel article, Johnson had recently stated that Orbital debris is the No. 1 risk to the space shuttle and on any given mission, he estimates that the shuttle is hit thousands of times by tiny bits of old satellites and spacecraft that either fell apart or smashed together.

These orbital collisions rarely do much damage to the shuttle or the ISS because the specks are so small; most are tinier than the period at the end of this sentence. But their orbital speed is as high as 18,000 mph -- so even a slight increase in size can have devastating consequences, Johnson said in the article.

The Air Force recently laid out $29 million to build space-based sensors that could detect threats or hazards and protect satellites in orbit.

Assurance Technologies and Lockheed Martin Space Systems recently split $20 million of the two-year contract that the Air force says should ultimately demonstrate a viable sensing capability, as well as integration with other space systems to offer threat and hazard detection, assessment and notification.

Known as the Self-Awareness Space Situations Awareness, SASSA will develop and demonstrate a hardware/software architecture using a suite of threat warning instruments located on a space vehicle. This will be accomplished by developing and demonstrating a payload that can monitor a space vehicle using threat warning instruments and can report hazards or threat indicators to ground operators. Successful demonstration of the SASSA system will bring threat warning hardware and software, validate a threat warning architecture, and provide valuable lessons learned for future programs, the Air Force stated.

Layer 8 in a box

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