February 12, 2009

NASA, Russian Military Report First Collision In Space

Two satellites collided in orbit on Tuesday, prompting NASA to announce it to be the first collision of its kind in space.

A US commercially-owned satellite collided with a crippled Russian military satellite in low-earth orbit. The commercial satellite was owned by Bethseda, Maryland-based Iridium Satellite LLC, which characterized the event as "extremely unusual."

However, "the Iridium constellation is uniquely designed to withstand such an event, and the company is taking the necessary steps to replace the lost satellite with one of its in-orbit spare satellites," the company said in a statement.

Iridium said its technology did not fail and the company is not at fault.

"This satellite loss may result in very limited service disruption in the form of brief, occasional outages," it said, adding that it expects to have a network solution in place by Friday, and an in-orbit spare within 30 days.

Iridium said its network holds 66 communication satellites and in-orbit spares. The satellite lost on Tuesday was launched in 1997.

"We believe it's the first time that two satellites have collided in orbit," said Air Force Colonel Les Kodlick from the U.S. Strategic Command.

Both the Iridium communications satellite and the Russian Cosmos-2251 satellite, which launched in 1993, are said to have weighed more than 1,000 pounds. Officials said they were tracking hundreds of pieces of wreckage produced by the crash, according to USA Today.

"The collision of these two space apparatuses happened by chance and these two apparatuses have been destroyed," Major-General Alexander Yakushin, first deputy commander of Russia's Space Forces, told Reuters.

"The fragments pose no danger whatsoever to Russian space objects," he said. When asked if the debris posed a danger to other nations' spacecraft, he said: "As for foreign ones, it is not for me say as it is not in my competency."

"We knew this was going to happen eventually," said Mark Matney, an orbital debris scientist at Johnson Space Center in Houston.

"Right now, they're definitely counting dozens," Matney said in reference to the number of pieces spread by the collision. "I would suspect that they'll be counting hundreds when the counting is done."

As for pieces the size of micrometers, the count will likely be in the thousands, he added.

"The collisions are going to be becoming more and more important in the coming decades," Matney told the AP.

According to the AP, NASA believes any risk to the space station and its three astronauts is low. It orbits about 270 miles below the collision course.

U.S. Space Surveillance Network operates to monitor the manmade debris that orbits the Earth. At the beginning of 2009, nearly 17,000 pieces of debris were known to be orbiting the planet. The network was monitoring the two debris clouds that caused the collision created Tuesday.

"The orbital altitude where the collision took place is among the most crowded in low Earth orbit," Texas-based security consultancy Stratfor said in a research note.

"But statistically speaking, the enormous scale of space makes the chance that this kind of direct collision would occur completely by accident infinitesimal," it said.


Image 1: A Beehive of Satellites - The launch of the first artificial satellite by the then Soviet Union in 1957 marked the beginning of the utilization of space for science and commercial activity. During the Cold War, space was a prime area of competition between the Soviet Union and the U.S. In 1964 the first TV satellite was launched into a geostationary orbit to transmit the Olympic games from Tokyo. Later, Russian launch activities declined while other nations set up their own space programs. Thus, the number of objects in Earth orbit has increased steadily -- by 200 per year on average. The debris objects shown in the images are an artist's impression based on actual density data. However, the debris objects are shown at an exaggerated size to make them visible at the scale shown. (ESA)

Image 2: An artist's rendering of an Iridium telecommunications satellite of the type destroyed in Tuesday's collision with a Russian satellite. (Iridium)


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