- A discarded Chinese rocket and a Soviet-era satellite nearly collided on Earth overnight.
- The collision would have created a huge amount of new space debris and further worsened our current space junk problem.
- As we continue to launch more and more satellites, the chance that space junk has an impact on manned missions increases.
In case you haven’t already heard: space junk is becoming a real problem. There is so much man-made junk floating around in Earth’s orbit that it actually poses a danger to future space missions and even ongoing programs like the International Space Station. It̵
On Thursday night, the gravity of our space junk problem became abundantly clear when it looked like an old Chinese mission rocket stage was about to collide with an already dead Soviet satellite. Scientists who tracked both objects analyzed the numbers and determined that there was a greater than 10% chance that the objects collided, which is quite high and definitely deserves attention. Thankfully, the two large chunks of space debris have lost each other, but that doesn’t mean we can go back to ignoring our space junk problems.
I know what you’re thinking: “Okay, so an old dead Soviet satellite almost hit a piece of a Chinese rocket. So what?”
While it is true that none of the pieces of debris were functional or even important to ongoing operations, a collision could still have been catastrophic. You see, when man-made objects in space collide at high speed they create even more debris as a result. This means that two large objects become dozens, hundreds or even thousands of smaller, but still dangerous objects that continue to orbit the Earth.
We are monitoring a very high risk conjunction between two large deceased objects in LEO. Multiple data points show missing distance <25m and PC between 1% and 20%. The combined mass of both objects is ~ 2,800 kg.
Item 1: 19826
Item 2: 36123
TCA: October 16 00: 56UTC
Event altitude: 991km pic.twitter.com/6yWDx7bziw
– LeoLabs, Inc. (@LeoLabs_Space) 13 October 2020
Even these smaller objects can cause serious problems for space missions, as something as small as lightning moving at high speed can cause incredible damage if it hits a vital piece of cosmic machinery. If, heaven forbid, a manned spaceship encounters or is hit by a tiny, fast-moving piece of metal as it makes its way to the space station or the moon, the results could be catastrophic.
Also, the smaller an object, the harder it is to track it from Earth. Two large objects are a problem, sure, but a thousand smaller objects moving at different speeds and in new directions could spell disaster.
The good news, of course, is that the satellite and the rocket stage didn’t collide with each other. However, the risk of an event like this happening won’t go away anytime soon. Several countries have proposed ways to clean up Earth’s orbit and remove larger chunks of space junk, but progress has been minimal so far.