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Space junk spinning out of control, warns Russia

Vladimir Radyuhin
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After it loses a nano-satellite that collided with Chinese debris

This handout illustration image shows a view of the Earth from geostationary height depicting swarms of space debris — approximately 50,000 of the half-million or more objects greater than 1cm — in Low Earth Orbit (LEO).— PHOTO: AFP
This handout illustration image shows a view of the Earth from geostationary height depicting swarms of space debris — approximately 50,000 of the half-million or more objects greater than 1cm — in Low Earth Orbit (LEO).— PHOTO: AFP

Having lost a nano-satellite in a collision with a piece of Chinese debris, Russia is ringing alarm bells over the snowballing problem of space junk.

A 17-cm glass-sphere Russian satellite for laser ranging experiments, called Blits, was knocked off its orbit when it hit a piece of a weather satellite destroyed by a Chinese missile in a 2007 weapon test.

The collision left the satellite spinning faster and facing the wrong way, rendering it unusable. The incident took place in January, but came to light only recently, when Russian operators of the satellite asked a U.S. space object tracking service for help. Manmade garbage flying in near-Earth space poses ever greater threats to satellites and space crews, Russia’s top space official warned.

“Three years ago the probability of collision between a spaceship and debris larger than one centimetre was estimated at one case in every five years while today it is likely to occur once in 18 to 24 months,” Vladimir Popovkin, head of the Russian Federal Space Agency (Roscosmos), told a meeting on space threats at the Upper House of Parliament. Even if all satellite launches are halted, space debris will continue to grow in a chain reaction of junk-to-junk collision, he said.

“About 10 tons of space garbage clutter low earth orbits of up to 2,000 km,” said Boris Shustov, head of the Russian Academy of Sciences Institute of Astronomy. “Out of more than 600,000 pieces of space objects larger than one centimetre, only 5 per cent have been tracked down and catalogued, while 95 per cent remain undetected.”

Apart from orbit correction, there are no effective ways of protecting spacecraft from debris flying at nearly 8 km a second.

The ISS crews have to perform collision evading manoeuvres at least once in a year.

Mr. Popovkin said the problem was most serious in geostationary orbits used by communications and weather satellites because junk could stay there for millions of years.

“Geostationary orbits, which are a unique resource, may be lost in the next 20 years because of manmade pollution”

The Russian space chief called for international cooperation in devising ways to remove junk.


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