Every year there’s more objects and more space junk circling the Earth. If any of those objects collide it could result in a major disaster affecting on-Earth communications and services. Such an incident nearly happened last night. There was concern yesterday regarding a segment of an old Russian satellite (COSMOS 2004) and a discarded Chinese rocket (CZ-4C R/B). It was calculated that the two pieces of space junk could pass within less than 25 meters of each other. Considering their combined weight was over 2,800 kilograms (6,173 pounds) and their velocity was 32,800mph, a collision could potentially be very serious, so fingers were crossed.
LeoLabs, which provides space debris tracking and collision prevention services for low Earth orbit, kept an eye on the two pieces of junk as they edged ever closer to each other. Yesterday the company posted a visualization of the trajectory of both segments and the potential for collision, which you can see in the tweet above. It’s understandable why it was classed as a “high risk” for the collision. Thankfully, LeoLabs has since reported that there was “no indication of a collision.” They confirmed this using data from their Kiwi Space Radar, which only showed a CZ-4C R/B passing over as a single object with no signs of debris, meaning the object hadn’t hit anything else. Dr. Moriba Jah, an aerodynamicist at the University of Texas at Austin, has since calculated that the miss distance ended up being 70 meters, which is still incredibly close.
With companies such as SpaceX planning to launch tens of thousands of Starlink satellites, the potential for collisions in orbit is only set to grow, and with it, the need for a cost-effective and efficient method of retrieving space junk. It’s something the ESA has been calling for since 2013.