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Russian satellite + US satellite = space junk

February 12, 2009 @ 01:01 By: gordon Category: Astronomy, Seen on the 'net

The BBC has a story reporting that an Iridium communication satellite attempted to occupy the same time-space coordinates as a non-operational Russian satellite somtime on Tuesday. Since the laws of physics generally do not allow this sort of thing to occur, a large cloud of debris has taken their place.

In practical terms, this means that there’s now a whole lot of new things in orbit that can potentially hit other satellites in orbit. The impact took place in a higher orbit than the International Space Station, so it is not considered at high risk. If everything goes well, the pieces of debris will come out of orbit without hitting anything in the process and burn up harmlessly in the atmosphere. Based on the report, NASA isn’t worried about the ISS being hit by the debris in the immediate future.

Since man started lobbing objects into orbit, there have been 6000 satellites launched. In addition to the satellites, there have been other things such as rocket boosters and associated bits and pieces, tools, gloves and even a spacesuit (minus astronaut) that have found their way into orbit. Usually, these things come out of orbit fairly quickly, but they can sometimes remain in orbit for months or years. Occasionally, pieces make it back to Earth, sometimes with non-trivial results. COSMO-954, a Russian satellite, broke up over northern Canada, scattering radioactive debris from its nuclear reactor across the Northwest Territories in January 1978. You can read about Operation Morning Light on the Geologic Survey of Canada’s website.

I saw a strange glowing spiral cloud when I was at the cottage during the summer of 1992, which I later learned was a satellite coming out of orbit. Some people may be treated to a rather unique spectacle if they’re in the right place at the right time when the pieces de-orbit.

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