Two huge pieces of space junk come within 19 feet of colliding

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Two massive bits of defunct Russian space junk came within just 19ft (six metres) of colliding with each other in what was a dangerous near-miss in low-Earth orbit.

It was close to being a ‘worst-case scenario’ that could have created thousands of new pieces of hazardous debris, according to experts.

The dramatic moment between a dead spy satellite and an old Soviet rocket will reignite concerns about the crowdedness of low-Earth orbit, with space agencies and private firms around the world trying to come up with solutions on how best to deal with it.

Satellite monitoring and collision detection firm LeoLabs spotted the near-miss and said it was ‘too close for comfort’.

Close call: Two massive bits of defunct Russian space junk came within just 19ft (6 metres) of colliding with each other in what was a dangerous near-miss in low-Earth orbit

Warning: Satellite monitoring and collision detection firm LeoLabs spotted the near-miss and said it was 'too close for comfort'

Warning:¬†Satellite monitoring and collision detection firm LeoLabs spotted the near-miss and said it was ‘too close for comfort’

HOW MANY ITEMS ARE THERE IN ORBIT? 

  • Rocket launches since 1957:¬†¬†6,340
  • Number of satellites in orbit:¬†14,710¬†
  • Number still in space:¬†9,780¬†
  • Number still functioning:¬†7,100
  • Number of debris objects:¬†32,500
  • Break-ups, explosions etc:¬†640¬†
  • Mass of objects in orbit:¬†10,500 tonnes¬†
  • Prediction of the amount of debris in orbit using statistical models¬†
  • Over 10cm: 36,500¬†
  • 1cm to 10cm:¬†1,000,000¬†
  • 1mm to 1cm: 130 million¬†

Source: European Space Agency 

The company identified the two objects as a leftover SL-8 rocket and a Cosmos 2361 Russian spy satellite.

The former was a Soviet rocket that first entered service in 1964 and continued flying until 2009, while the latter was launched in 1998.

It was designed to intercept electronic signals such as radio communications or radar transmissions.

LeoLabs said the objects missed each other with a margin of error of ‘only a few tens of metres’ in an area known as¬†a ‘bad neighborhood’ in low-Earth orbit (LEO).

It extends from 590 to 652 miles in altitude (950 to 1050 kilometres). 

‘This region has significant debris-generating potential in #LEO due to a mix of breakup events and abandoned derelict objects,’ LeoLabs wrote on Twitter.¬†

‘In particular, this region is host to ~ 160 SL-8 rocket bodies along with their ~ 160 payloads deployed over 20 years ago.’

LeoLabs said there were 1,400 similar near-misses in this region of LEO between June and September 2022 alone. 

There are currently close to 30,000 pieces of orbital debris being tracked by the US Department of Defense, although many more also exist that are too small to detect.

Although rocket launches vary, boosters and other sizeable parts from rockets fall back to Earth or are abandoned in orbit.

LeoLabs said the objects missed each other with a margin of error of 'only a few tens of metres' in an area known as a 'bad neighborhood' in low-Earth orbit (LEO)

LeoLabs said the objects missed each other with a margin of error of ‘only a few tens of metres’ in an area known as a ‘bad neighborhood’ in low-Earth orbit (LEO)¬†

It was close to being a 'worst-case scenario' that could have created thousands of new pieces of hazardous debris, according to experts

It was close to being a ‘worst-case scenario’ that could have created thousands of new pieces of hazardous debris, according to experts

In most cases, the abandoned rocket parts re-enter the atmosphere in an uncontrolled fashion and debris may land anywhere along the flight path.

An estimated 14,710 satellites have been launched into orbit since 1957, according to the European Space Agency, with 9,780 remaining in space and 7,100 still functioning.

The total mass of all objects in orbit is said to equate to around 10,500 tonnes, while statistical models suggests there are 130 million pieces of debris from 1mm to 1cm in size.

In June last year, the UK government announced plans for an ‘RAC for space’ as part of its vision to tackle millions of shards of debris clogging up near-Earth orbit .

It also wants to improve the sustainability of future space missions, with Science Minister George Freeman issuing a stern warning to the likes of Russia and China that ‘the days of putting up whatever they want have got to be over’.

He said a ‘Wild West’ space race without effective regulation would only serve to increase the growing threat of debris in orbit, including hundreds of old satellites.¬†

Surprise: Farmer Mick Miners (pictured) discovered a huge piece of space junk from SpaceX stuck in his property in the Snowy Mountains, south of Jindabyne last year

Surprise: Farmer Mick Miners (pictured) discovered a huge piece of space junk from SpaceX stuck in his property in the Snowy Mountains, south of Jindabyne last year

Mr Freeman also told MailOnline that he expected Elon Musk to fall in line with Britain’s push for space sustainability, adding that the need for action was not something the US billionaire could ignore.

Critics of Musk say his Starlink constellation is hogging space, with both China and the European Space Agency taking aim at his satellite-internet system, but the Tesla founder has rubbished these fears.

The UK government’s raft of new measures includes regulating commercial satellite launches, rewarding companies that minimise their footprint on the Earth’s orbit, and dishing out an additional ¬£5 million for technologies to clean up space junk.

Last year, scientists at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver analysed the risk to human life of objects plummeting to the ground after re-entering the Earth’s atmosphere.

Under current practices, the researchers found that, if a typical rocket re-entry spreads debris across a 10 square metre (108 sq ft) area, then there is roughly a 1 in 10 chance that one or more casualties will occur over the next 10 years.

They also said there was a higher risk to those living in the global south, with errant parts three times more likely to land at the latitudes of Jakarta, Dhaka and Lagos than those of New York, Beijing or Moscow. 

However, despite 80 per cent of the world’s people living in what is known as a ‘risk zone’, just 0.1 per cent of it is considered populated.

‘Everything else is ocean, forest or agricultural land,’ said Dr Shane Walsh, a research fellow at the International Centre for Radio Astronomy Research.¬†

‘It’s extremely unlikely to cause damage or loss of life.’¬†

Jonathan McDowell, an astrophysicist at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics, also told MailOnline that despite the increase in space debris in low-Earth orbit, this does not equate to more risk for humans.

‘Not especially,’ McDowell said, when asked whether there was an increased risk, ‘because most countries are being better about disposing of the larger debris safely.’

He added: ‘The Long March 5B (belonging to China) is the most worrying one because it is so large. But there is a (lower) risk from the debris from all countries.’

McDowell believes that instead of being an increasing risk, it is instead one ‘we are becoming more aware of’.

‘All space agencies have taken measures to reduce the amount of falling space debris but the current norms are still not strict enough, as the Australian incident shows,’ he added.

McDowell has kept a list of the biggest uncontrolled reentries, dating back to the Sputnik rocket in 1958.

WHAT IS SPACE JUNK? MORE THAN 170 MILLION PIECES OF DEAD SATELLITES, SPENT ROCKETS AND FLAKES OF PAINT POSE ‘THREAT’ TO SPACE INDUSTRY

There are an estimated 170 million pieces of so-called ‘space junk’ – left behind after missions that can be as big as spent rocket stages or as small as paint flakes – in orbit alongside some US$700 billion (¬£555bn) of space infrastructure.

But only 27,000 are tracked, and with the fragments able to travel at speeds above 16,777 mph (27,000kmh), even tiny pieces could seriously damage or destroy satellites.

However, traditional gripping methods don’t work in space, as suction cups do not function in a vacuum and temperatures are too cold for substances like tape and glue.

Grippers based around magnets are useless because most of the debris in orbit around Earth is not magnetic.

1675088916 785 Two huge pieces of space junk come within 19 feet

Around 500,000 pieces of human-made debris (artist’s impression) currently orbit our planet, made up of disused satellites, bits of spacecraft and spent rockets

Most proposed solutions, including debris harpoons, either require or cause forceful interaction with the debris, which could push those objects in unintended, unpredictable directions.

Scientists point to two events that have badly worsened the problem of space junk.

The first was in February 2009, when an Iridium telecoms satellite and Kosmos-2251, a Russian military satellite, accidentally collided.

The second was in January 2007, when China tested an anti-satellite weapon on an old Fengyun weather satellite.

Experts also pointed to two sites that have become worryingly cluttered.

One is low Earth orbit which is used by satnav satellites, the ISS, China’s manned missions and the Hubble telescope, among others.

The other is in geostationary orbit, and is used by communications, weather and surveillance satellites that must maintain a fixed position relative to Earth.