Two dead satellites orbiting the Earth could collide on Wednesday

Two dead satellites orbiting the Earth at 50 feet per second could COLLIDE above the USA on Wednesday creating a dangerous field of debris and space junk

  • One of the satellites is the USA, Dutch and British space telescope called IRAS
  • The other is an experimental USA scientific payload satellite launched in 1967
  • If they collide it will happen 560 miles above Pittsburgh, PA on Wednesday 

Two dead satellites orbiting the Earth at 50 feet per second could collide above the USA on Wednesday creating a dangerous field of debris and space junk.

Specialist space tracking company, LeoLabs, said the two objects will pass about 50 feet from one another, which is unusually close and increasing the risk of a collision.

If they collide it will be 560 miles above Pittsburgh, PA at 23:39 GMT on Wednesday, but will have no impact on the Earth as debris would burn up in the atmosphere. 

If the satellites hit each other at speed it would destroy the smaller science payload and generate pieces of debris that could potentially hit other satellites.

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Two dead satellites, including the IRAS space telescope, orbiting the Earth at 50 feet per second could collide above the USA on Wednesday creating a dangerous field of debris

The decommissioned telescope is called IRAS and was launched in 1983 as a NASA, Netherlands and UK partnership to survey the entire night sky in infrared.  

The other satellite is called GCSE 4 and is a retired science payload used for experiments – it was launched in 1967.

The close approach and the speed they are moving ‘is especially alarming’ due to the size of the larger object, according to LeoLabs.

IRAS is 11.8 feet long and the combined size of the two objects ‘greatly increases the probability of a collision’.

Because both satellites are dead, with no fuel or ability to power up, there is no way for Earth to communicate with them to conduct evasive manoeuvres. 

‘Events like this highlight the need for responsible, timely deorbiting of satellites for space sustainability moving forward,’ the tracking company said in a Tweet. 

There are a number of projects in development to tackle situations like this, including one by the European Space Agency that could see dead satellites captured and safely deorbited. 

Unfortunately the ClearSpace-1 mission, which will be the first to remove an item of debris from orbit, isn’t planned for launch until 2025. 

ESA will commission the technology and operations of the mission from commercial companies in a hope of ‘triggering a new industry in deorbit services’.

In the same way private rocket launch companies take payment for putting satellites in orbit, in future private organisations could be paid to bring them back down. 

In 2009 commercial communications satellite Iridium 33 collided with the derelict Russian military satellite Kosmos-2251 at a speed of 26,000 miles per hour – the blue lines in this graphic show the orbit of the thousands of pieces of debris that resulted in the crash

The fallout from a satellite collision can be significant, resulting in thousands of pieces of space junk. 

An example of a collission is from 2009 when an active commercial communications satellite called Iridium 33 collided with the derelict Russian military satellite Kosmos-2251 at a speed of 26,000 miles per hour. 

NASA estimated that within just 10 days of the crash more than 1,000 pieces of debris larger than three inches had been created out of the accident.

While the debris didn’t directly hit any other satellite, it did cause the International Space Station to have to perform an avoidance maneuver two years later in 2011.

‘Imagine how dangerous sailing the high seas would be if all the ships ever lost in history were still drifting on top of the water,’ says ESA Director General Jan Wörner.

‘That is the current situation in orbit, and it cannot be allowed to continue.’

WHAT IS SPACE JUNK?

There are an estimated 170 million pieces of so-called ‘space junk’ – left behind after missions that can be as big as spent rocket stages or as small as paint flakes – in orbit alongside some US$700 billion (£555bn) of space infrastructure.

But only 22,000 are tracked, and with the fragments able to travel at speeds above 16,777 mph (27,000kmh), even tiny pieces could seriously damage or destroy satellites.

However, traditional gripping methods don’t work in space, as suction cups do not function in a vacuum and temperatures are too cold for substances like tape and glue.

Grippers based around magnets are useless because most of the debris in orbit around Earth is not magnetic.

Around 500,000 pieces of human-made debris (artist’s impression) currently orbit our planet, made up of disused satellites, bits of spacecraft and spent rockets

Most proposed solutions, including debris harpoons, either require or cause forceful interaction with the debris, which could push those objects in unintended, unpredictable directions.

Scientists point to two events that have badly worsened the problem of space junk.

The first was in February 2009, when an Iridium telecoms satellite and Kosmos-2251, a Russian military satellite, accidentally collided.

The second was in January 2007, when China tested an anti-satellite weapon on an old Fengyun weather satellite.

Experts also pointed to two sites that have become worryingly cluttered.

One is low Earth orbit which is used by satnav satellites, the ISS, China’s manned missions and the Hubble telescope, among others.

The other is in geostationary orbit, and is used by communications, weather and surveillance satellites that must maintain a fixed position relative to Earth. 

 

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