- The abandoned Chinese rocket stage and Soviet-era satellite almost collided with Earth overnight.
- The collision would have wrecked new spaces and exacerbated our existing space junk problem.
- As we continue to launch more and more satellites, the likelihood of space junk affecting crude missions increases.
If you haven’t heard before: Space junk is becoming a real problem. There is so much man-made debris scattered around the Earth’s orbit that it is actually posing a threat to future space missions and ongoing programs such as the International Space Station. That’s bad, and companies like SpaceX are thinking of launching thousands more satellites on a regular basis, it’s just going to get worse.
On Thursday night, when the old rocket stage of a Chinese mission seemed to be preparing to collide with our already dead Soviet satellite, the seriousness of our space junk problem became increasingly clear. Scientists observing both objects broke down the numbers and determined that there was a more than 10% probability that objects would collide, which is very high and certainly worth noting. Thankfully, the two big pieces of space debris missed each other, but that doesn’t mean we can go back ignoring our spatial junk pains.
I know what you’re thinking: “Well, then, an old, dead Soviet satellite almost hits a piece of a Chinese rocket. So what? “
While it is true that a piece of debris was not functional or even important for an ongoing operation, a collision can be devastating. You see, when man-made objects in space run into each other at high speeds, resulting in more waste. This means that two large objects become dozens, hundreds or even thousands of small, but still dangerous objects that continue to orbit the earth.
We are monitoring a very high-risk connection between two large incomplete objects in the LO. Multiple data points show a miss distance between 1% and 20% <25th and PC. The combined set of both 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
Even these small objects can cause serious problems for space missions, as something as small as a bolt moving at high speeds can cause incredible damage if it affects a significant part of the cosmic machinery. If, as heaven forbids, the crude spacecraft runs into or is struck by a small, fast-moving piece of metal, as it goes to the space station or to the moon, the result could be disastrous.
On top of that, as small as an object will be, it is difficult to truck from the earth. Two large objects is a problem, sure, but a thousand small objects can spell destruction at different speeds and moving in new directions.
The good news, of course, is that the satellite and rocket stages did not collide. However, the risk of such an event does not go away in a short time. Some countries have suggested ways to clear Earth’s orbit and remove large chunks of space junk, but so far, little progress has been made.