Filed under: Astronomy, Bad Astronomy, Failure, Government, ISS, movies, NASA, Phil Plait, Predictions, Science, Science Fiction, Space, Star Trek, Survival, tech, Travel, UFO
This item made the news yesterday:
CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. – Scientists are keeping a close eye on orbital debris created when two communications satellites — one American, the other Russian — smashed into each other hundreds of miles above the Earth.
NASA said it will take weeks to determine the full magnitude of the unprecedented crash and whether any other satellites or even the Hubble Space Telescope are threatened.
The collision, which occurred nearly 500 miles over Siberia on Tuesday, was the first high-speed impact between two intact spacecraft, NASA officials said.
Wow: two satellites have collided in orbit, destroying both. This is the first time such a major collision has ever occurred.
The satellites were Cosmos 2251, a Russian communication relay satellite that’s been defunct for a decade, and an Iridium satellite, one of a fleet of communication satellites launched by Motorola in the late 90s and early 2000s.
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There have been collisions in space before, but never from such large satellites — the Iridium bird was about 700 kg, and the Cosmos was about the same — and never resulting in a total wipeout like this. Again, if I have my numbers about right, the explosion resulting from the energy of impact would have been about the same as detonating a ton of TNT.
I had to chuckle at this comment in that thread at Bad Astronomy:
But wouldn’t the impact have made a new, ever more powerful hybrid satellite? It would have an over-arching need to communicate and would do so in Russian. The only way to make it stop broadcasting a constant barrage at us would be if it mistook someone for its designer at Motorola and then. . . Oh wait, this isn’t Star Trek.
No, not at all. When you have two large satellites, each moving at something on the order of about 5 miles a second hit one another at nearly right angles, then you don’t get any kind of hybrid. You get a mess. As in a debris cloud of upwards of a thousand bits and pieces of space junk, some of it substantial, most of it still moving at thousands of miles an hour, and all of it dangerous.
I’ve written previously about the threat of real ‘UFOs’ to our space exploration. From the quoted article in that post:
The reason is life-and-death. Since Mercury days, NASA engineers have realized that visual sightings of anomalies can sometimes provide clues to the functioning — or malfunctioning — of the spaceships that contain their precious astronauts. White dots outside the window could be spray from a propellant leak, or ice particles, flaking insulation, worked-loose fasteners (as in this latest case) or inadvertently released tools or components.
Whatever the objects might be, they pose a threat of coming back in contact with the spacecraft, potentially causing damage to delicate instruments, thermal tiles, windows or solar cells, or fouling rotating or hinged mechanisms. So Mission Control needs to find out about them right away in order to determine that they are not hazardous.
Right now the bulk of that debris cloud is about 250 miles higher than the ISS. But it will slowly drift closer (the effect of atmospheric drag – even at that altitude, it will slow anything in orbit, meaning that the item in question will drop to a lower orbit). At some point, this could be a real threat to the space station.
And beyond that, it is a further complication to *any* effort to get into something other than a low Earth orbit. Currently we have something like tens of thousands of bits of “space junk” that have to be tracked – and while all of it will eventually fall back into the atmosphere and burn up, it can present a real danger. If we’re not careful, we could encase ourselves in a shell of so much junk that it would basically eliminate the possibility of travel beyond our planet for decades.
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