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Satellite collision highlights space-junk threat

The collision between a US and Russian satellite some 500 miles above Siberia has raised concerns about the threat posed by orbital garbage.

By Blogger for The Christian Science Monitor / February 12, 2009

NASA’s Orbital Debris Program Office has counted about 17,000 objects larger than 10 centimeters, and it estimates that there are more than 200,000 particles between one and 10 centimeters. The debris objects shown here are an artist's impression based on actual density data. The objects are shown at an exaggerated size to make them visible at the scale shown.

European Space Agency

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The collision between a US and Russian satellite some 500 miles above Siberia has raised concerns about the threat posed by orbital garbage.

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A few minutes before 5 a.m. GMT on Wednesday, a US Iridium communications satellite and a defunct Russian military communications satellite smashed into each other, creating at least 600 pieces of debris that each could strike other satellites. It was the first time that two intact orbiting spacecraft have crashed into each other, say officials.

For its part, Iridium, whose network of 66 satellites – make that 65 – provides global coverage for handheld phones, denies that the collision is their fault, and says that any disruption in service will be brief and should be completely remedied by the end of the week.

The Associated Press quotes Russian space journalist Igor Lisov, who wondered why Iridium, whose satellite was perfectly functional and could maneuver, didn't try to move their bird out of the way.

According to the Voice of America, the official external broadcasting service of the US government, Russian officials say that debris from the collision pose no threat to the International Space Station or its three crewmembers, who are orbiting about 270 miles below the crash. The Pentagon says that it has not yet identified any threats to its own satellites, but added that tracking small objects in space is very difficult.

Reuters quotes Gen. James Cartwright, the vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and former head of the Pentagon's space operations, who warns that those with satellites will "have to play a little bit of dodgeball for many tens of years to come" to avoid debris from this collision. General Cartwright says that the good news is that the orbit of this debris will be predictable, eventually; the bad news is that the fragments of the satellites cover a large area.

In the half century since the launch of Sputnik, so-called space junk – including defunct satellites and fragments from exploded ones, spent rocket boosters, engine effluents and coolants, paint flakes, and other small particles, all traveling at about 15,000 miles per hour – has come to surround the earth for thousands of miles in every direction.

NASA’s Orbital Debris Program Office has counted about 17,000 objects larger than 10 centimeters (about 4 inches), and it estimates that there are more than 200,000 particles between one and 10 centimeters. The number of particles smaller than a centimeter (about 3/8ths of an inch) probably exceeds tens of millions. NASA says that debris shields can protect a spacecraft from particles as large as one centimeter.

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