An out-of-commission Russian satellite and a discarded Chinese rocket orbiting the Earth more than 600 miles above the surface have a ‘very high risk’ of colliding tonight.
LeoLabs, a firm that tracks space debris, reveals these objects are likely to pass less than 40 feet from each other, and shared a model that shows a 10 percent chance of the two smashing into each other at 20:56 ET on Thursday (01:56 BST Friday) just above Antarctica.
The objects have a combined mass of 2.8 metric tons, and the impact would add thousands of pieces of space junk – anywhere from 10 percent to 20 percent more debris – to the 170 million currently floating in orbit.
The speed of the collision between the Russian Kosmos-2004 satellite and the Chinese Chang Zheng 4C rocket would be around 14.7km per second (32,882 miles per hour), LeoLabs estimates.
Although there is no threat to people on Earth, the man-made materials would pose a significant risk to functioning satellites in orbit.
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An out of commission Russian satellite (Kosmos-2004) and a discarded Chinese rocket (CZ-4C) floating in orbit more than 600 miles above Earth’s surface are at risk of colliding. Image shows the two trajectories and where they’d hit, just above Antarctica. Russian Kosmos-2004 moving towards the southern poles and the Chinese satellite is heading north
‘This event continues to be very high risk and will likely stay this way through the time of closest approach,’ LeoLabs said in a tweet.
Astronomer Jonathan McDowell weighed in on the event with a model prediction.
The image shows the Russian Kosmos-2004 moving towards the southern poles and the Chinese Chang Zheng 4C heading north over the Falklands.
The predicted paths also suggest the two could eventually meet head on over Antarctica.
Astronomer Jonathan McDowell weighed in on the event with a model prediction. The image shows the Russian Kosmos-2004 moving towards the southern poles above Earth and the Chinese Chang Zheng 4C is heading north over the Falklands
LeoLabs image shows the out of commission Russian satellite (marked as COSMOS 2004) and the discarded Chinese rocket (marked as CZ-4C R/B) at the point of impact
LeoLabs , a firm that tracks space debris, reveals these objects will pass less than 82 feet apart and shared a model that shows a 20 percent chance of the two smashing into each other
McDowell also notes that the two items breaking apart during impact will add 10 to 20 percent more space junk into orbit.
Auckland University physics professor Richard Easther told Stuff that the collision would leave ‘lots and lots of uncontrollable pieces of debris’.
‘It’s going to leave a mess… any resulting debris would continue travelling in orbit at high speed,’ he said.
The pieces would be moving at speeds of around 17,000 miles an hour (28,000 km an hour), which is faster than a bullet, he added.
However, the Aerospace Corporation, based in California, calculated a much lower chance of collision – one in 250,000 million.
‘I don’t mean to throw any shade whatsoever on [LeoLabs’] process or their sensors or anything else,’ Ted Muelhaupt at the Aerospace Corporation told Business Insider.
‘But the sensors, the data we have access to says we’re pretty confident [the satellites] are not going to hit.’
A Chang Zheng 4C carrier rocket, like the one on the collision course, blasts off from the launch pad at the Taiyuan Satellite Launch Center in Taiyuan, capital of north China’s Shanxi Province, in October 2014
A report released in May shows Russia is responsible for the majority of space junk floating in orbit – accounting for some 14,403 pieces in total.
These include the upper stage of a type of rocket known as a space tug, called Fregat-SB, which was used to launch a scientific radio telescope, called Spektr-R, into space in 2011.
Fregat-SB was left floating after it delivered Spektr-R, and broke apart on May 8 somewhere above the Indian Ocean after nine years in orbit, leaving dozens of pieces of debris around Earth, according to Roscosmos.
Spektr-R stopped responding to ground control last year and was declared dead in May 2019.
An expert notes that the two breaking apart during impact will add 10 to 20 percent more space junk into orbit. These pieces can destroy satellites, telescopes, spacecraft
These pieces can destroy satellites, telescopes and spacecraft, and one NASA scientist fears they could eventually create the ‘Kessler syndrome’.
This is a theoretical scenario, proposed by NASA scientist Donald Kessler in 1978, in which the density of objects in low-Earth orbit is high enough that collisions between objects cause a cascade, in which each collision generates space debris that increases the likelihood of further collisions
It could even reach the point that it is dangerous for humans to venture off the planet.
A recent study has proposed a way to limit the number of satellites in space to help decrease the growing space debris problem.
Researchers from the University of Colorado Boulder say an international agreement would be needed in order to charge operators ‘orbital use fees’ for every device launched into orbit.
The amount charged would increase each year to 2040 up to $235,000, according to the team, who say the orbit becomes clearer each year, reducing the risk costs.
WHAT IS SPACE JUNK? MORE THAN 170 MILLION PIECES OF DEAD SATELLITES, SPENT ROCKETS AND FLAKES OF PAINT POSE ‘THREAT’ TO SPACE INDUSTRY
There are an estimated 170 million pieces of so-called ‘space junk’ – left behind after missions that can be as big as spent rocket stages or as small as paint flakes – in orbit alongside some US$700 billion (£555bn) of space infrastructure.
But only 22,000 are tracked, and with the fragments able to travel at speeds above 16,777 mph (27,000kmh), even tiny pieces could seriously damage or destroy satellites.
However, traditional gripping methods don’t work in space, as suction cups do not function in a vacuum and temperatures are too cold for substances like tape and glue.
Grippers based around magnets are useless because most of the debris in orbit around Earth is not magnetic.
Around 500,000 pieces of human-made debris (artist’s impression) currently orbit our planet, made up of disused satellites, bits of spacecraft and spent rockets
Most proposed solutions, including debris harpoons, either require or cause forceful interaction with the debris, which could push those objects in unintended, unpredictable directions.
Scientists point to two events that have badly worsened the problem of space junk.
The first was in February 2009, when an Iridium telecoms satellite and Kosmos-2251, a Russian military satellite, accidentally collided.
The second was in January 2007, when China tested an anti-satellite weapon on an old Fengyun weather satellite.
Experts also pointed to two sites that have become worryingly cluttered.
One is low Earth orbit which is used by satnav satellites, the ISS, China’s manned missions and the Hubble telescope, among others.
The other is in geostationary orbit, and is used by communications, weather and surveillance satellites that must maintain a fixed position relative to Earth.