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Friday, February 13, 2009

Collision in Space

By now we have all read about the collision of two satellites in Low Earth Orbit.

Joel Achenbach, of The Washington Post, tells us "Debris From Satellites' Collision Said to Pose Small Risk to Space Station." Somehow I am not assured that those who missed this coming collision (or were not prepared to tell us about its impending occurrence) are going to be able to handle protecting the International Space Station.

Then there is Mike Moore, writing in Foreign Policy, who tells us "Space Debris:  From Nuisance to Nightmare." Mr Moore, no relation to Michael Moore than I know of, is concerned about the fact that the US won't sign on to a treaty banning weapons in space. One wonders how such a treaty would be verified.

But, back to the collision. Apparently the striker was the spent Russian Cosmos 2251, Strela-2M communications satellite, launched in 1993, which had been non-operational for a decade, The other satellite was one of the privately owned Iridium satellites, Iridium 33.

From this simulation from AGI, a firm to be trusted, it looks like the satellites meet at almost a 90 degree crossing angle, which means that the speed at impact was likely much greater than the speed of either of the individual satellites. Pretty spectacular. Stay with the animation to see the two debris fields form and then disperse over space.

According to a Reuters report in The Boston Globe:
Iridium Satellite LLC said Thursday it had no advance warning of an impending collision between one of its communications satellites and a defunct Russian military satellite above Siberia.
It's not like folks aren't offering to help report possible satellite collisions or near misses--like the Satellite Orbital Conjunction Reports Assessing Threatening Encounters in Space.

So far, this seems to be put down to Russian incompetence. I have not seen the suggestion that this was either (a) a test by Russia of their ability to take out a satellite or (b) a signal to the Obama Administration that the Russians are not going to be messing around. I see either of those two options as being within the realm of possibility.

I was advised to check Slash Dot for additional insights. However, I was delayed by a post on the Leeuwarden, Netherlands, Mayor's office having lost some data off their computer. But, the proper URL is located here for the Slash Dot Post.

No, I am not going to start building a bunker to protect me from space debris.


Here is a Reuters report on the episode, including a statement from the French Space Operations Center at Toulouse, they were aware of the fact that the two satellites would pass very close by each other.


Now someone suggests to me that maybe Iridium Satellite LLC, at the behest of its largest customer, flew one of its birds into Cosmos 2251. Why? For the US to send a message to the Soviet Union and China and maybe Iran. Frankly, I don't believe the new Obama Administration could have acted this quickly, although it might have signed off on a previously planned action.

I discount this as a likely explanation. One reason is that I would hope people in a position to make decisions in the US space program understand the danger of so much debris in space. Another reason is that this does not seem to be the type of approach the Obama Administration is taking, at least initially, to international problems. Finally, given how "whistle blowers" worked to control the Bush Administration, I would think that the same ethic and imperative would apply to the new Administration, no?


There is this view from J D "Illiad" Frazer, in his Sunday cartoon.

Regards  --  Cliff

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