Low Earth orbit was the site of a near miss today (January 27) that had the potential to create thousands of pieces of hazardous space debris.
Satellite monitoring and collision detection firm LeoLabs discovered a near miss between two decommissioned Soviet space objects, a rocket hull and dead spy satellite, that missed each other by an incredibly narrow margin. According to a LeoLabs statement posted on Twitter (opens in a new tab) on Friday (Jan. 27), the two objects missed each other by a distance of 20 feet (6 meters), with a margin of error of “just a few tens of meters.”
While the two objects fortunately did not collide, LeoLabs says the event was very close to being a “worst-case scenario” that could have generated thousands of more space debris in a ripple effect. As low Earth orbit (LEO) becomes increasingly crowded, such close calls are becoming more common, highlighting the very real threat to the environment in which the International Space Station (ISS) and thousands of critical satellites operate.
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According to LeoLabs, the two objects that narrowly missed each other were a defunct SL-8 rocket body and Cosmos 2361, a now-dead Russian spy satellite designed to intercept electronic signals such as radio communications or radar transmissions. Cosmos 2361 was launched in 1998according to NASA, while SL-8 is a US Department of Defense nomenclature for the Kosmos-3 family of Soviet rockets that first entered service in 1964 and continued to fly through 2009.
Too close for comfort… 😳Two large defunct objects in #LEO narrowly missed each other this morning — an SL-8 rocket body (16511) and Cosmos 2361 (25590) passed each other at an altitude of 984 km. 🚀⚠️ #SpaceDebris pic.twitter.com/pF9o6BuZ5Q27 January 2023
The near miss occurred in what LeoLabs calls a “bad neighborhood” in LEO that ranges from 590 to 652 miles in altitude (950 to 1,050 kilometers). “This region has significant potential to generate debris in #LEO due to a mix of rupture events and abandoned derelicts,” LeoLabs wrote in another Twitter post (opens in a new tab) Friday (January 27). “In particular, this region hosts ~160 SL-8 missile bodies along with their ~160 payloads deployed over 20 years ago.” LeoLabs added that there were 1,400 similar near misses in this region of LEO between June and September 2022 alone.
Events such as these underscore the need for new strategies to reduce or remove orbital debris from LEO. There are currently close to 30,000 pieces of runway debris tracked by the Ministry of Defence, but many more lurk that are too small to be detected, according to NASA (opens in a new tab).
The threat posed by runway waste is routinely becoming known. The ISS, which orbits lower than this recent near miss at around 408 km, has had to perform many evasive maneuvers the last few months to avoid space litter. A small object, possibly a piece of orbital debris, is believed to be responsible for a leak aboard a Soyuz spacecraft currently docked at the ISS.
As more and more pieces of debris accumulate in Earth’s orbit, collisions between them can generate even more fragments in a terrifying theoretical ripple effect known as Kessler syndrome. If left unchecked, the theory suggests that bumpy space debris could one day thwart humanity’s space ambitions by rendering space around Earth harmless. To try to remedy the situation, there are currently a large number of concepts on how to reduce space debris proposed and tested worldwide.
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