Editor’s note: The following story was originally posted February 12 and then updated February 21 after a February 20 press briefing from NASA. Officials said it was unclear yet whether debris from the collision would pose too great a risk for a planned mission to upgrade the Hubble Space Telescope.
The orbital highways above Earth have been getting more crowded for years, but until February 10 there had been no local big bang.
Two large satellites — a functioning U.S. device and a nonoperating Russian instrument — collided in Earth orbit about 800 kilometers over Siberia on February 10, creating a swarm of some 600 chunks of debris. “This is the first time we’ve had an accidental collision of this magnitude,” says Eugene G. Stansbery, an orbital debris expert at NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston.
The pieces have remained in the orbital plane of each satellite but are spreading out in altitude. Stansbery said that computer simulations indicated only a slight risk that some of the spreading debris could hit the International Space Station, which orbits 350 km above Earth. Debris is denser at 600 km above Earth, where the Hubble Space Telescope orbits, but the observatory is a much smaller target, he added.
NASA officials announced February 20 that the agency would not know until mid-March whether the debris in the vicinity of the Hubble Space Telescope would pose too great a risk for shuttle astronauts to repair and refurbish the telescope. That repair mission is now scheduled for May.
The U.S. satellite was an Iridium 33, a common telecommunications spacecraft. The Russian device was a Kosmos 2251. The crash destroyed both satellites, which had orbits about 90 degrees apart relative to Earth.
Satellite collision, take 1 from Science News on Vimeo . Computer models (Gaussian model shown) depict the spreading of debris from the satellite crash. Video courtesy of Analytical Graphics, Inc. (www.agi.com).
Satellite collision, take 2 from Science News on Vimeo . Computer models (Evolve-based model shown) depict the spreading of debris from the satellite crash. Video courtesy of Analytical Graphics, Inc. (www.agi.com).