Space junk funk: The anniversary of the Cosmos/Iridium satellite crash

On Feb. 10 an Iridium satellite did the unthinkable – it crashed into an inactive Russian Cosmos-2251 military satellite some 500 miles above Siberia

Odds-makers would say it would be nearly impossible for two satellites to collide in the vastness of space but that’s exactly what they did on Feb. 10, 2009. That’s the day when an Iridium satellite was hit by an inactive Russian Cosmos-2251 military satellite some 500 miles above Siberia, and brought the words “orbital debris” into the general lexicon. According to NASA's Orbital Debris Office, the number and magnitude of space debris has grown significantly in the past 20 years. Here’s a look at what happened and the results of the increased space junk.

On Feb. 10, 2009 a Russian Cosmos 2251 satellite crashed into an Iridium spacecraft, the first accidental hypervelocity collision of two intact spacecraft in history. NASA said the crash resulted in two distinct debris clouds extending through much of low Earth orbit (LEO).

The debris field from the Cosmos 2251 and Iridium 33 satellites accounts for some 1,788 catalogued space debris items. The picture here depicts what NASA said the evolution of the Iridium and Cosmos debris paths would look like six months after the collision.

NASA' s Orbital Debris Program Office in 2010 said that while over 4,700 space missions have taken place worldwide since the beginning of what it called the Space Age, only 10 missions account for one-third of all cataloged objects currently in Earth orbit and of that, six of these 10 debris producing events occurred within the past 10 years. Debris from China the U.S. and former Soviet Union spacecraft make up majority of junk floating in space. Approximately 19,000 objects larger than 10 cm are known to exist, NASA stated.

NASA said that on April 22, 2009 its Cloudsat spacecraft executed a collision avoidance maneuver to evade a potential collision with a fragment of Cosmos 2251.


A Kosmos rocket blasts off from the Plesetsk cosmodromme carrying a military spy satellite.

This is not a shot of orbital debris but does give you the sense of what a spacecraft explosion might look like. Here a Delta II rocket carrying a global positioning satellite explodes after liftoff from the Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, raining debris for miles, Jan. 17, 1997.


While high-levels of solar activity are not good news for satellites, GPS and electronics they can have one benefit: such massive solar bursts can decrease the amounts of dangerous orbital debris. In fact the NASA Orbital Debris Program Office recently said the increase in solar activity over the past year actually decreased the number of cataloged debris in Earth orbit during 2011. This increase in the sun's activity, known as the solar maximum, is expected to peak next year.

NASA’s Orbital Debris Office says 2011 ended with the least number of identified satellite breakups since 2002. Only three standard satellite breakups were detected by the U.S. Space Surveillance Network during the year, two involving small auxiliary motors associated with the Russian upper stage satellite. The third was what’s known as an ullage motor from a Cosmos mission. Here is a shot of NASA testing an ullage motor.

An example of orbital debris impact. Here is a window pit from orbital debris from a space shuttle (STS-007).

Here is a solid rocket motor (SRM) slag. Aluminum oxide slag is a byproduct of SRMs. Orbital SRMs used to boost satellites into higher orbits are potentially a significant source of centimeter sized orbital debris. This piece was recovered from a test firing of a shuttle solid rocket booster, NASA said.

More orbital debris damage seen during Hubble Space Telescope repairs.

Here are paint flakes captured by Mir Environmental Effects Payload (MEEP).

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