Tens of thousands of pieces of debris could litter space for decades, if not centuries, if a feared space junk collision happens on Friday afternoon, an expert has warned.
Californian company LeoLabs estimated on Thursday that there was a greater than 10 per cent chance of a large Russian satellite and an old Chinese rocket colliding head-on at a combined speed of 53,000 kilometres an hour.
However, an updated forecast on Friday was more reassuring, suggesting they were highly likely to miss each other by at least seven metres when they cross paths 991km above the Antarctic coast at 1.56pm.
Speaking from California, Daniel Ceperley, the chief executive of space monitoring firm LeoLabs, told Stuff that if they did hit, it would be “a really high consequence” event.
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If there was a collision, the amount of space debris in low Earth orbit would go up substantially, he said.
“In an instant there could be 25 per cent more debris in low Earth orbit – you really don’t want to see that happen.”
The debris could destroy other satellites, which could cause outages for services as diverse as broadband, the tracking of goods, and environmental monitoring, he said.
But any impact would likely be felt over time, rather than immediately, as the debris spread out over a period of weeks to form a “belt of debris” nearly 1000km above the Earth.
“One of the big issues is there are a lot of planned satellite constellations above 1000km, so if this collision occurs, they would have to navigate through it on the way up, and then on the way back down when satellites are being disposed of,” Ceperley said.
A “useful” orbit about 750km above the Earth had already had to be vacated because of a Chinese anti-satellite weapons test in 2007 and a somewhat smaller satellite collision in 2009 that had created a big volume of debris, he said.
“If we keep taking away parts of space that are usable, you will run out of space in the not too distant future.”
He doubted anyone on Earth would be at risk, as any junk that hurtled towards them would burn up in the atmosphere.
Instead, LeoLabs should find out for certain whether any collision had occurred within a few hours, when the Chinese rocket body is scheduled to pass over its state-of-the-art multimillion-dollar space radar near Naseby in Central Otago.
The Naseby radar is the first built by LeoLabs that is capable of finding and tracking pieces of debris as small as 2cm in diameter, with a second now under construction in Costa Rica, and two more on the planning board.
Ceperley said progress on international agreements to tackle space junk had been slow, but he praised the New Zealand Space Agency, a division of the Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment.
LeoLabs vice president Alan DeClerck said people “might underestimate how important the leadership out of New Zealand has been”.
“We are looking at an event of potentially global significance and the Kiwi space radar is playing a pivotal role in everyone’s understanding of what is going on here.”
Space debris, Collision, Rocket
World news – CA – Satellite collision could create ring of debris for more than 100 years