Space junk tracker detects two satellites that could collide soon

James Marshall
January 29, 2020

The satellite-tracking company predicts that the close approach will occur on Wednesday evening over Pittsburgh in the US. Data spacecraft located at an altitude of about 900 kilometers above the planet represent the IRAS telescope and scientific payload GGSE-4.

"We are monitoring a close approach event involving IRAS (13777), the decommissioned space telescope launched in 1983, and GGSE-4 (2828), an experimental USA payload launched in 1967", LeoLabs tweeted Monday. According to LeoLabs, there's one in 100 chance that they will collide.

Speaking to Science Alert, Flinders University space archeologist Alice Gorman warned the large amount of potential space debris created by a collision make the encounter "one of the most unsafe possible collisions that we've seen for some time". IRAS weighs 1,083 kilograms (2,388 pounds). According to Harvard-Smithsonian astronomer Jonathan McDowell, Poppy 5 (AKA 1967-053G) -the decommissioned and only relatively recently declassified military satellite - is attached to another satellite. Experts say about this situation as one of the most unfavorable in recent times.

It should be noted that, in the past, space agencies have conducted evasive manoeuvres even when satellites were over 60 kilometres apart. "And if this does actually come to pass, there's potentially a large amount of debris that will be created.

So you increase the number of pieces of space debris which increases the risk of colliding with a functioning satellite". According to the company, the two satellites are moving toward one another at speeds of nearly 53,000 kilometres per hour.

"They're going to be colliding at an incredibly high speed". There could be some wobble with their orbits so the precise time and location isn't perfectly known; as such, the threat of collision persists, albeit with somewhat lower odds. In addition, there are factors in low-Earth orbit that could still affect the movement of the two satellites. And, at that speed, it's going to probably cause the smaller satellite to break up completely into smaller fragments.

"Events like this highlight the need for responsible and timely desorbitation of satellites for the sustainability of space. And each of those fragments becomes a piece of space debris in its own right", Gorman told ScienceAlert.

If the satellites do collide and produce debris, it won't be a major addition to the 18,000 pieces of debris now being tracked, McDowell said, but it could generate about 1,000 more. "We will proceed to watch this event through the coming days and provide updates as possible". In 2009 a decommissioned Russian satellite, Cosmos-2251, and an active US satellite, Iridium 33, collided.

Other reports by Click Lancashire

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