‘This is probably one of the potentially worst accidental collisions that we’ve seen for a while’
Two massive pieces of space debris could collide tonight, which could fill Earthâs orbit with debris and make space operations impossible.
The two objects â a discarded Russian satellite and a Chinese rocket â have a combined weight of around 2,800 kilograms. Theyâre hurtling directly towards each other at high speeds, and are set to meet 991 kilometres over the Weddell Sea, just off the Antarctic Peninsula.
âThis is probably one of the potentially worst accidental collisions that weâve seen for a while,â Alice Gorman, space archaeologist at Flinders University in Australia, told ScienceAlert.
LeoLabs is a company that tracks space debris in Low Earth Orbit to prevent collisions. They tweeted on Tuesday to warn about the possibility of the collision, putting the likelihood anywhere between one and 20 per cent â which they say is dangerously high.
We are monitoring a very high risk conjunction between two large defunct objects in LEO. Multiple data points show miss distance <25m and Pc between 1% and 20%. Combined mass of both objects is ~2,800kg.Object 1: 19826Object 2: 36123TCA: Oct 16 00:56UTCEvent altitude: 991km pic.twitter.com/6yWDx7bziw
While thereâs no risk of harming anyone on Earth, if the debris collide, it could be the start of a feedback loop of increased orbital junk that would make space travel increasingly difficult. If enough debris fills Earthâs orbit, there will be a significant danger to active satellites and even rocket launches.
âWeâre not yet in a position where we can actively remove any debris like this,â said Gorman. âSo itâll be up there for a while. And because of the altitude of about 1,000 kilometres, this stuff isnât going to reenter within a matter of weeks or months. Some of it is likely to be up there for quite some time.â
During that time, the debris creates a risk for other objects, like active satellites. At higher orbits, space debris has even forced the International Space Station (ISS) to make costly maneuvers to avoid the junk, which could damage the station.
This is not the first close encounter of the year. In January, a decommissioned space telescope and an experimental U.S. payload passed within about 47 metres of one another.
As in the January near-miss, there is no way to communicate with either of the defunct objects and have them shift their position out of harmâs way. The Chinese rocket stage is part of a Long March 4B rocket launched on May 10, 1999. The satellite is a Russian Parus military satellite launched on Feb. 22, 1989.
The concern over an increase in large collisions relates to the potential of triggering the Kessler Syndrome, where access to space becomes increasingly difficult, as more and more junk clutters orbit. Eventually, a feedback loop could make near-Earth space inaccessible.
âWeâre not yet at that Kessler Syndrome point. But how much closer in time does this bring us to that point?â said Gorman.
While there are efforts underway to clean up space debris, they are still a ways off.
The objects are expected to pass â or collide â at around 9 p.m. EST. LeoLabs will continue to monitor the situation and post updates. After the expected pass, they will look for an increase in debris shower, which would mean the worst: the objects smashed into each other.
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Space debris, Rocket, Collision
World news – CA – Two large masses of space debris may collide tonight, and fill the Earthâs low orbit with junk