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16 October 2020 02:41

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satellite collision

Illustration of space junk orbiting Earth Alamy Stock Photo About 1000 kilometres above Earth's surface, two old spacecraft may be on a collision course. If they do hit one another, the smashup could create a spray of debris that would be extremely dangerous for other satellites and could set off a chain-reaction of collisions. The two objects in danger are a Soviet Parus navigation satellite launched in 1989 and a Chinese rocket booster launched in 2009. Neither has any method of propulsion onboard, so there is no way to steer them away from one another. "Nowadays that is rarer, and typically you would have some propulsion on the satellite so that at the end of the mission you would lower its orbit enough so that it will re-enter and fall into the sea or burn up," says Jonathan McDowell at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics.

orbit

But there are plenty of these older objects in orbit with no way to prevent them from smashing into each other. According to LeoLabs, a company that tracks space debris, the two objects will pass within 12 metres of each other on 16 October, and the chance of a collision is higher than 10 per cent. A collision would reduce both spacecraft to clouds of shrapnel hurtling through orbit and potentially smashing into other satellites. "If you have a collision, the debris pieces end up in these elliptical orbits where they cross a lot of altitude lanes," says McDowell. "It is a bit worrying when you have something like that – it doesn't just stay safely in its lane." Part of the fear is that a debris cloud like this could set off a scenario known as the Kessler syndrome, where the debris keeps hitting other satellites and causing more debris in a sort of domino effect of destruction.

Close passes like this occur once or twice a year, with actual collisions only happening about once a decade, McDowell estimates. But as we continue to launch an ever-increasing number of satellites, they could start happening more often. "Unless we act, this problem is only going to get worse," he says. If we don't stop adding heaps of space junk to orbit and start cleaning up our old messes, satellite collisions could become commonplace. Sign up to our free Launchpad newsletter for a voyage across the galaxy and beyond, every Friday By Leah Crane Illustration of space debris orbiting the earth Alamy Stock Photo Two old spaceships may be on a collision course about 1,000 kilometers above the earth's surface. If they hit each other, smashing them could create a spray of dirt that would be extremely dangerous to other satellites and could set off a chain reaction of collisions. The two objects at risk are a Soviet Parus navigation satellite, launched in 1989, and a Chinese rocket booster, launched in 2009. Both have no propulsion method on board so there is no way to steer them away from each other. "This is less common these days, and usually you have a drive on the satellite so at the end of the mission you lower your orbit so far that it re-enters and falls into the sea or burns," says Jonathan McDowell at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics. But there are many of these older objects in orbit that cannot prevent them from hitting one another. advertising According to LeoLabs, a company that tracks down space debris, the two objects will pass within 12 meters of each other on October 16, and the probability of a collision is over 10 percent. A collision would reduce both spaceships to splinter clouds that hurtle through orbit and potentially hit other satellites. "When you have a collision, the debris ends up in these elliptical orbits where they cross many elevation tracks," says McDowell. "It's a little worrying when you have something like this – it just doesn't just stay safely on its trail." Part of the fear is that such a cloud of debris could trigger a scenario known as Kessler Syndrome, in which the debris keeps hitting other satellites, causing more debris in a kind of domino effect of destruction. Such narrow passes occur once or twice a year, with actual collisions occurring only about once a decade, according to McDowell estimates. However, as we launch more and more satellites, they could become more common. "If we don't act, this problem will only get worse," he says. If we don't stop putting piles of space debris into orbit and start cleaning up our old clutter, satellite collisions could be the order of the day. Sign up for our free Launchpad newsletter every Friday for a journey across the galaxy and beyond More on these topics:

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