Satellites Collide Over Siberia, Creating Showers of Space Debris

By Eliza Strickland | February 12, 2009 8:34 am

orbital debrisIn an unprecedented space accident, two satellites collided in orbit yesterday, pulverizing each other and creating clouds of orbital debris that could pose a threat to other satellites and spacecraft. The accident occurred when a defunct Russian satellite and a U.S. communications satellite rammed into each other 491 miles above Siberia while each was traveling about 17,500 miles per hour. While NASA officials say this is the first such collision on record, they didn’t express much surprise. “We knew this was going to happen eventually and this is it — this was the big one,” said Nicholas Johnson [ABC News], who tracks orbital debris with NASA.

In their first estimate, NASA said at least 600 pieces of debris had spun off from the collision, and noted that even small chunks can pose a threat since they move at such high speeds. But the International Space Station is not thought to be imperiled because it’s in a lower orbit, 220 miles above the earth. Some pieces will drift down towards the station over time, but the risk to the station, Mr. Johnson added, “is going to be very, very small.” In the worst case, he said, “We’ll just dodge them if we have to. It’s the small things you can’t see that are the ones that can do you harm” [The New York Times]. The Space Station has maneuvered to avoid debris eight times in the past, NASA says.

The Russian satellite was launched in 1993, and officials say it has been out of service for a decade. The second satellite, which was launched in 1998, belongs to the U.S. communications company Iridium. Each satellite weighed over 1,000 pounds. Asked which satellite was at fault, Johnson said “they ran into each other. Nothing has the right of way up there. We don’t have an air traffic controller in space. There is no universal way of knowing what’s coming in your direction” [CNET].

U.S. Strategic Command routinely tracks over 18,000 objects in space, including operational and defunct satellites, discarded rocket boosters, and debris that can be as small as a baseball. NASA tracks objects that are smaller than that. In the past abandoned or dysfunctional satellites have caused problems, with some pushed into extremely wide “graveyard” orbits that move them out of the way of other spacecraft. In several cases, rogue satellites have been shot out of the sky to prevent them crashing to Earth [The Guardian].

Related Content:
Bad Astronomy: Satellites collide in orbit has more on this event
80beats: Oopsy: Astronauts “Drop” Tool Kit During Spacewalk
80beats: Repair Mission to the Hubble May Encounter Perilous Space Debris
DISCOVER: Watch the Skies–For Junk, an interview with the head of NASA’s orbital debris office
DISCOVER: From High-Tech Communications Beacons to the Infamous Flying Tool Bag

Image: NASA

  • http://diaryofanobody ashrel

    haha what a joke. i guess more space cooperation is needed , so that waste can be avoided

  • George

    The Institute for Human Continuity commends Californian Congressman for Planet X Forsight saying preparedness for Near Earth Objects is key for the survival of the human race… As Planet X approaches our galaxy, its gravitational pull will interact with these NEOs in potentially disastrous ways for our planet.
    “The Sky is Falling: the deadly threat posed by Near Earth Objects and what we can do about it.”
    By Rep. Dana Rohrabacher:

  • Constructivist

    “In several cases, rogue satellites have been shot out of the sky to prevent them crashing to Earth.”

    The Guardian gets it wrong. The U.S. shot down a satellite last year, but it was a fairly unique event, with major international repercussions.

  • jpt

    Bring on the ‘Satellite Chasing Lawyers’!

  • Louis

    When we can establish a business venture to go up and capture spent satellites, then we will be able to start cleaning up the mess we have made! Bring on the insurance companys!

  • Stephen

    Why did they abandon S.H.A.D.O.? Ed Straker surely would have kept space debris to a minimum

  • Ashley

    600 bits only ? 17500 miles an hour ? do most of the bits just burn up or are they sent into the solar system, what is it ?

  • Buk

    Why don’t we put a very powerful magnet in orbit to collect the debris. Eventually it would collect enough debris an fall to Earth.

    There you go! Space junk problem fixed! 😉

  • thomas jones r.

    better call Aunt Flo @ Progressive


Discover's Newsletter

Sign up to get the latest science news delivered weekly right to your inbox!


80beats is DISCOVER's news aggregator, weaving together the choicest tidbits from the best articles covering the day's most compelling topics.

See More

Collapse bottom bar