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.
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