Space debris knocked a Russian satellite off track in late January, and now Analytical Graphics, Inc. (AGI) has produced evidence to show that the near-space junk was material left over from the FY-1C Chinese satellite, which was exploded in 2007 by a Chinese test of an anti-satellite missile.
In that controversial shootdown, the Chinese used a ground-based missile to target the aging weather satellite — the first known satellite-intercept test of the kind in over 20 years, according to the BBC. The US and former USSR had stopped such tests in the 1980s. Among the reasons for stopping was the fear that the resulting space debris would create a hazard to satellites in orbit.
Now those fears seem to have come to pass. On Feb. 4, Russian observers reported to The Center for Space Standards and Innovation (CSSI) that their BLITS satellite had suffered a serious shift in orbit and spin on Jan. 22. CSSI is a branch of AGI, which analyzed the catalogue of space objects and figured out which space debris could have caused the collision on that date.
The problem of junk in space is a growing one, and it isn’t just the Chinese who are to blame. In 2011, the National Resource Council warned that small pieces of space debris are creating an increasing hazard in space that puts billion-dollar projects at risk. In June 2011, the International Space Station (ISS) itself suffered serious damage from orbiting space debris.
A large collision between an outdated, nonoperational Russian satellite and an American Iridium satellite occurred 490 miles over Siberia in 2009. Officials at the Johnson Space Center calculated that there were about 600 pieces of debris created by the crash. At that time, NASA officials were confident that the ISS could avoid being hit by the resulting debris — a confidence which unfortunately proved to be misplaced.
For AGI’s animated explanation of how the Chinese space debris caused the crash with the Russian BLITS, check out their video:
I’m sure we’ll all sleep better tonight knowing that space debris is up there smashing into working satellites. Not.
[Animation courtesy of Analytical Graphics, Inc.]
[artist's rendering space debris courtesy European Space Agency]