A dead Soviet satellite and a discarded Chinese rocket body just avoided colliding in space and exploding into dangerous debris
Summary List PlacementA dead Soviet satellite and a discarded Chinese rocket body sped toward each other in space this week, but avoided a catastrophic crash on Thursday night. LeoLabs, a company that uses radar to track satellites and debris in space, said on Tuesday that it was monitoring a "very high-risk" conjunction — an intersection in the two objects' orbits around Earth. The company has used its radar arrays to observe each of the two objects as they pass overhead three or four times per day since Friday. The data suggest that the two large pieces of space junk missed each other by 8 to 43 meters (26 to 141 feet) at 8:56 p.m. ET on Thursday.
On Wednesday, when the estimated miss distance was just 12 meters (19 feet), LeoLabs calculated a 10% chance that the objects would collide. That may seem low, but NASA routinely moves the International Space Station when the orbiting laboratory faces just a 0.001% (1-in-100,000) chance or greater of colliding with an object. Since the Soviet satellite and Chinese rocket body are both defunct, nobody could move them out of each other's way. If they did collide, an explosion roughly equivalent to detonating 14 metric tons of TNT would have sent bits of debris rocketing in all directions, according to astronomer Jonathan McDowell. But when the rocket body passed over a LeoLabs radar just 10 minutes after the conjunction, there was only one object there — "no signs of debris," the company tweeted.
"Bullet dodged," McDowell said on Twitter. "But space debris is still a big problem." A collision would probably not have posed a danger to anybody on Earth, since the satellites are 991 kilometers (616 miles) above the ground and crossed paths above Antarctica's Weddell Sea. But the resulting cloud of thousands of spaceship fragments would have been a hazard in Earth's orbit.
Experts at The Aerospace Corporation had calculated much lower odds of collision: just 1 in 23 billion as of Thursday morning, with the objects projected to miss each other by about 70 meters (230 feet). "The space-debris community is constantly warning about all these close approaches, and we're not wrong or lying about this," Ted Muelhaupt, who oversees The Aerospace Corporation's space-debris analysis, told Business Insider. "Any given one of them is a low-probability event, because space is still really big. But when you take these objects and you mix them up, sooner or later you're going to see a payoff. By most of our models we're overdue for another major collision." Space collisions make clouds of dangerous high-speed debris Nearly 130 million bits of space junk currently surround Earth, from abandoned satellites, spacecraft that broke apart, and other missions. That debris travels at roughly 10 times the speed of a bullet, which is fast enough to inflict disastrous damage to vital equipment, no matter how small the pieces. Such a hit could kill astronauts on a spacecraft.
Collisions between pieces of space junk make the problem worse since they fragment objects into smaller pieces. "Each time there's a big collision, it's a big change in the LEO [low-Earth orbit] environment," Dan Ceperley, the CEO of LeoLabs, previously told Business Insider. Two events in 2007 and 2009 increased the amount of large debris in low-Earth orbit by about 70%. The first was a Chinese test of an anti-satellite missile, in 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, now there's sort of a debris belt," Ceperley said. India conducted its own anti-satellite missile test in 2019, and that explosion created an estimated 6,500 pieces of debris larger than an eraser.
The satellite that India blew up had a mass of less than one metric ton. Combined, the Soviet satellite and the Chinese rocket body that just careened past each other have a mass of nearly three metric tons (2,800 kilograms). Given those large sizes, a collision could have created a significant cloud of dangerous debris. High-risk satellite conjunctions are becoming more common This isn't the first time LeoLabs has alerted the world to the possibility of a high-risk satellite conjunction. In January, the company calculated a possible collision between a dead space telescope and an old US Air Force satellite. The objects did not crash, but Ceperley said that because both satellites "were decommissioned, basically nobody was keeping a close eye on them." The US Air Force, which tracks satellites for the government, did not notify NASA about that potential collision, the space agency told Business Insider at the time.
Experts' warnings about space junk have only grown more urgent since that near miss. "We are seeing recently a decided uptick in the number of conjunctions," Dan Oltrogge, an astrodynamicist who researches orbital debris at Analytical Graphics, Inc, told Business Insider. Oltrogge uses a software system that has been collecting and assessing conjunction data for the last 15 years. The recent uptick in orbital encounters, he added, "looks to be very well aligned with the new large-constellation spacecraft that have been launched." The large constellations he's referring to are fleets of internet satellites that companies like 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 rocketed nearly 800 new satellites into Earth's orbit since May 2019.
A debris disaster could cut off our access to space If the space-junk problem were to get extreme, a chain of collisions could spiral out of control and surround Earth in an impassable field of debris. This possibility is known as a Kessler event, after Donald J. Kessler, who worked for NASA's Johnson Space Center and calculated in a 1978 paper that it could take hundreds of years for such debris to clear up enough to make spaceflight safe again. "It is a long-term effect that takes place over decades and centuries," Muelhaupt told Business Insider in January. "Anything that makes a lot of debris is going to increase that risk." The sheer number of objects in Earth's orbit may already be having a Kessler-like effect — a risk that Rocket Lab CEO Peter Beck described last week. "This has a massive impact on the launch side," he told CNN Business, adding that rockets "have to try and weave their way up in between these [satellite] constellations."SEE ALSO: China and Russia haven't signed on to NASA's new plan to unify how humanity explores space Join the conversation about this story » NOW WATCH: What Elon Musk's 42,000 Starlink satellites could do for — and to — planet Earth
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SpaceX is following up its first astronaut mission by launching 3 batches of internet satellites within 18 days
SpaceX recently launched NASA astronauts to the International Space Station in the first-ever crewed commercial spaceflight....SpaceX recently launched NASA astronauts to the International Space Station in the first-ever crewed commercial spaceflight. But Elon Musk has not slowed down the company's other projects: SpaceX is set to launch three batches of Starlink satellites this month. The project aims to blanket the planet in high-speed, affordable internet via a fleet of up to 42,000 satellites. Scientists have warned that Starlink could interfere with astronomical research, however, so future Starlink satellites will feature visors to reduce how bright they appear in the sky. Visit Business Insider's homepage for more stories. SpaceX is launching another batch of broadband internet satellites into orbit this week, while the company's new spaceship sits docked to the International Space Station. The upcoming launch is part of the Starlink project, Elon Musk's plan to blanket the Earth in high-speed satellite internet. Despite a few bumps so far — including astronomers' fears that the satellites could interfere with telescopes on Earth — Starlink is plowing ahead. SpaceX is planning three internet-satellite launches within 18 days in June; the first happened on June 4, and this will be the second. With the historic astronaut launch the company accomplished on May 30, that's four rocket launches in less than four weeks — a feat that would have been almost impossible to imagine a few years ago. The next batch of Starlink satellites will careen into space atop the same type of Falcon 9 rocket that SpaceX used to launch NASA astronauts in its Crew Dragon spaceship. The rocket's booster is designed to be reusable — it returns to Earth after detaching during the launch process and self-lands either on a drone ship at sea or on a launch pad in Cape Canaveral, Florida. The next batch of 60 Starlink satellites, which is scheduled to launch at 5:21 a.m. ET on Saturday, will join about 480 others that the company has sent into orbit since February 2018. SpaceX has sought government permission to put a total of 42,000 satellites into orbit, forming a "megaconstellation" around the Earth. Musk has said he hopes Starlink will get rural and remote regions of Earth online with affordable, high-speed web access. But already, the reflective satellites have appeared as bright, moving trails in the night sky that can photobomb astronomers' telescope observations and blot out the stars. "If there are lots and lots of bright moving objects in the sky, it tremendously complicates our job," astronomer James Lowenthal told the New York Times in November. "It potentially threatens the science of astronomy itself." 'It will look as if the whole sky is crawling with stars' Musk has suggested that SpaceX would send up batches of Starlink satellites every two weeks throughout 2020, for a total of 1,400 by the end of the year. But Friday's launch will only be the ninth since Starlink began two years ago. The company appears to be picking up the pace this month, however, with a total of 180 satellites between its three launches. After SpaceX launched its first set of Starlink satellites, many astronomers were alarmed by how bright the new objects were. In the days following the launch, people across the world spotted the train of satellites, like a line of twinkling stars. "I felt as if life as an astronomer and a lover of the night sky would never be the same," Lowenthal said. If SpaceX launches thousands more satellites, "it will look as if the whole sky is crawling with stars," he added. That's a challenge for telescopes on Earth that look for distant, dim objects. Picking up these false stars could mess with astronomers' data, since a single satellite could create a long streak of light across a telescope's long-exposure images of the sky. That might block the view of the objects astronomers want to study. Future Starlink satellites might get sun-blocking visors SpaceX has been in conversation with astronomical associations about reducing its satellites' effect on Earth's telescopes. The Starlink batch that launched on June 4 included a satellite with built-in visors to block the sun's reflection. SpaceX has said that starting with one of its next June launches, all satellites will have those visors going forward. SpaceX has also launched an experimental satellite painted black to reduce the amount of light it reflects — that change reduced the satellite's brightness by 55%. However, neither black paint nor a visor will stop the satellites' radio waves from interfering with telescopes. SpaceX aims to finish the entire Starlink project in 2027. If the network does wind up with 42,000 satellites, it would have launched more than eight times the total number of satellites in orbit today. Adding that much more material to Earth's orbit could increase the risk of space collisions. In the worst-case scenario, too many such crashes in a series could turn the region into a minefield of debris, creating a spiraling space-junk disaster that could cut off our ability to leave Earth. Already, a near-collision with a Starlink satellite forced the European Space Agency to maneuver its own spacecraft out of the way last year. To avoid leaving dead spacecraft in orbit (thereby contributing to the accumulation of space junk and increasing risk of collisions), SpaceX has said its satellites will automatically deorbit at the end of their lifespans. The company appeared to be testing the deorbiting mechanism when one of its satellites fell into Earth's atmosphere and burned up in February, according to astronomer Jonathan McDowell. After SpaceX launches at least 500 more satellites, the company plans to boot up Starlink, then build toward a floating internet backbone that would bathe most of the planet in ultra-high-speed web access. "For the system to be economically viable, it's really on the order of 1,000 satellites," Musk said in May 2019, "which is obviously a lot of satellites, but it's way less than 10,000 or 12,000." After this batch, the next Starlink launch is scheduled for June 22.SEE ALSO: Elon Musk says the biggest challenge of SpaceX's Starlink internet project is not satellites, but rather 'UFO on a stick' devices users will need to get online DON'T MISS: SpaceX's license to launch hundreds of internet satellites may have violated the law, experts say. Astronomers could sue the FCC. Join the conversation about this story » NOW WATCH: Why NASA waited nearly a decade to send astronauts into space from the US