For the second time this year, experts can only glimpse and wait as two large .bases come close to a potentially colliding course in low-Earth orbit.
An old, discarded Chinese rocket stage and a failed Russian military satellite are scheduled to pass within 12 meters (40 feet) of each other at 00:56 UTC on October 16, 2020, according to space debris tracking service LeoLabs.
Leo Labs says the two objects are more than 10 percent more likely to collide at an altitude of 1991 km (16,116 miles) above the sea near the Antarctic Peninsula.
We are observing a very very high risk connection between two large incomplete objects in LO. Multiple data points show a miss distance between 1% and 20% <25th and PC. The combined mass of the two of the budgets is ~ 2,800kg.
1 budget 1: 19826
2 Budget 2: 36123
TCA: Oct Oct 16 00: 56UTC
Event itude altitude: 991km pic.twitter.com/6yWDx7bziw
– LeoLabs, Inc. (LoLabs_Space) 13 October October, 2020
“This is probably one of the worst accidental collisions we’ve seen in a while,” space scientist Alice Gorman of Flinders University in Australia told Science Alert.
The two objects are significant, with a combined mass of about 2,800 kilograms (6,170 pounds), traveling in opposite directions with a relative velocity of 14.7 kilometers per second (9.1 miles per second). The rocket stage is part of the Long March 4B rocket launched on May 10, 1999; After it safely transported its payload, the stage was removed, as has been the normal process for decades.
The satellite is a Russian Paras military satellite, weighing about 825 kilograms (1,820 pounds), launched on February 22, 1989, and has previously been used for communications and navigation. It is no longer working. So neither of the two can be communicated or drilled to avoid smash-ups.
1 / This event continues for a very high risk and will probably remain so in the near future. Our system generates 6-8x new congestion reports daily at this event with new observation data each time. pic.twitter.com/d3tRbcV2P0
– LeoLabs, Inc. (LoLabs_Space) October 14, 2020
It is similar to the situation at the beginning of the year, in which two old satellites are estimated to pass within 15 to 30 meters of each other, with a probability of 100 collisions simultaneously. Later they sailed through each other as harmlessly as night ships.
In this approximate approach, as well as in this, the probability of a collision is complicated by the shape of the spacecraft. The Paras Satellite has a 17-meter (56 ft) boom that can easily close the estimated distance between them. But the worst situation would be if the two institutions collided.
We are not at risk here on Earth, even if potential collisions occur in densely populated areas. The concern is that the two objects will form a small debris fountain. This will burn at atmospheric penetration – but is more likely to pose hazards to other objects around low-Earth orbit.
“Last year, when India conducted an anti-satellite test, which created about 100 cases of traceable debris. So we will at least look at that statistic. And then, there are all the little bits that are not trackable,” Gorman said.
“We are not yet in a position where we can actively remove debris in this way. So it will be there for a while. And because of the itude of about 1000 kilometers, this material will not re-enter. It is a matter of weeks or months. It’s likely to be there for a while. “
While collision rates are currently very small – in the last 10 years, they have formed only 0.83 percent of all split-earth orbital split events – the concern is that more serious collisions will lead us faster on the path to Kessler syndrome.
It was predicted by former NASA astrophysicist Donald Castle, and he states that, with enough junk and debris in space, there will eventually be a cascade of fugitive collisions. A collision will create hundreds or thousands of junk pieces that will collide with others, as long as the space closest to Earth is basically unusable.
“We’re not at that Castle Syndrome point yet. But how close does time bring us to that stage?” Gorman said.
“We’ll have a sudden injection of debris that was expected. And that means there’s the possibility of other things colliding with the debris piece. That makes the situation a little more complicated.”
Current 2 / Current Risk Metrics by our latest CDM:
Miss distance: 12 meters (+ 18 / -12 meters)
Probability of collision:> 10%, account for large object bag size
Relative velocity: 14.7 km / s pic.twitter.com/y44QXyhHJK
– LeoLabs, Inc. (LoLabs_Space) October 14, 2020
This is, of course, the worst case scenario; According to LeoLabs probability calculations that is not the case here. But, if the two objects miss each other, it’s a matter of time before something big collides in space close to Earth, and we don’t have the ability to stop it right now.
The event is a terrifying reminder that the problem of space debris, if left to its own devices, is going to get worse. The good news is that space agencies are working towards solutions. The largest generators of space debris are orbital explosions caused by residual fuel and batteries; Space agencies and aerospace engineering companies are launching plans such as the Orbit of Mission plan to reduce these risks, such as refueling in orbit.
And new technologies, such as automatic collision avoidance drills and space junk collection, are at work. So we just have to hope that we can continue to avoid big collisions until we have better space junk mitigation techniques.
“My feelings about this may not be to be optimistic, but we will have to wait,” Gorman told Science Alert. “Let’s keep our fingers crossed.”
LeoLabs will continue to monitor the situation. You Can follow his reports on Twitter.