Russian Satellite Nailed By Chinese Space Debris, Orbit Affected
March 12, 2013

Russian Satellite Nailed By Chinese Space Junk, Orbits Affected

Brett Smith for - Your Universe Online

Besides ruining the appearance of a landscape, litterbugs contribute to unsanitary and unsafe conditions, resulting in many communities issuing steep fines for anyone caught tossing their trash where it doesn´t belong.

A recent event involving a Russian satellite suggests that we may have to take our approach to litterbugs and apply it to outer space as well.

According to a report from the Colorado-based Analytical Graphics, Inc. (AGI), Chinese space junk, in the form of a fragment of the satellite FENGYUN 1C, collided with Russia´s BLITS satellite on January 22. The collision affected both the satellite´s orbit and its rate of rotation, according to the space-focused software company.

The piece of debris was generated in January 2007 when China tested a new anti-satellite (ASAT) missile by blowing up FENGYUN 1C.

On February 4, two weeks after the incident, engineers at the Institute for Precision Instrument Engineering (IPIE) in Moscow reported a considerable shift in the orbit of their BLITS satellite to the Center for Space Standards and Innovation (CSSI), a research arm of AGI. According to an AGI report, IPIE had detected a rapid 120-meter shift in the satellite´s orbit and also a change in its rotational velocity and attitude.

To piece together a timeline of events, scientists had to work backwards and review archival satellite data. The team needed to determine what piece of space junk could be big enough and close enough to cause a change in orbit in the BLITS satellite. They found an ideal candidate in the debris from FENGYUN 1C.

“Although the predicted distance would seem to preclude a collision, the fact that the close approach occurred within 10 seconds of the estimated change in orbit made it appear likely that this piece of FENGYUN 1C debris actually collided with BLITS,” according to a statement on the AGI site.

Based on the relative weight, velocity and sizes of the two objects, the AGI team was able to determine that the two had probably collided. The team said they are continuing to assess the circumstances and outcomes of the collision.

The detonation of the FENGYUN satellite in 2007 resulted in the creation of over 2,300 pieces of debris that are big enough to be tracked from the ground. NASA's Orbital Debris Program Office has estimated that the explosion generated over 35,000 pieces of debris bigger than 1 cm, making it the largest debris-generating event ever recorded.

Researchers at AGI have created a suite of graphics, animations, and videos dedicated to the event itself and the tracking of the debris. In 2007, NASA technical program manager T.S. Kelso told NBC News that the debris from the event poses a significant threat to American property in orbit around the Earth.

"To put the overall risk in some perspective, of the 3,150 payloads in Earth orbit or beyond, we have orbital data for 2,782 of those,” he told the news network in an e-mail. “Of the missing 368 payloads, some are in deep-space orbits around the sun or other planets, and some are not released by the US government for whatever reason. Of the 2,782 payloads we do have data for, 1,860 payloads pass through the regime now affected by the debris from the Chinese ASAT test."