Former Soviet satellite explodes in orbit following collision with debris

Former Soviet satellite explodes in orbit following collision with debris

An old Russian satellite from the late Soviet era, now deactivated, was hit by space debris 870 kilometers above sea level and several pieces of debris were generated from the impact. State of play of this incident illustrating orbital overpopulation.

On August 29, astrophysicist and space debris scientist Jonathan McDowell noted on X (formerly Twitter) that some new space debris has been detected around an old Soviet satellite, indicating that the latter has fragmented, which typically happens after an impact by another piece of debris. The event dates back to June 28.

Weighing more than 200 kilos, the Kosmos-2143 is a former communication satellite of the Soviet/Russian military forces, launched in 1991. It is in an orbit whose altitude reaches nearly 1,400 kilometers. At this altitude, there are not enough air particles straying above the Earth’s atmosphere to act as atmospheric dredging, which would allow the altitude of the satellite to be gradually reduced until it comes to dive and be consumed in our atmosphere. These high-perched satellites can therefore remain up there for centuries.

Invisible Debris

In its continuous surveillance of the skies, Norad (North American Aerospace Defense Command) spotted seven pieces of debris around Kosmos-2143. These fragments probably come from a collision between the satellite and debris. Not having been spotted before, the debris was likely to measure less than 10 centimeters. According to the European Space Agency (ESA), more than 30,000 pieces of debris larger than 10 centimeters have been identified in orbits at an altitude of less than 2,000 kilometers and the number of pieces of debris from a sheet greater than one centimeter would be 1 million.

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This new incident shows once again the danger posed by space debris as well as an orbital population that can become ever larger. The announcement of the incident follows by a few days that made by the ESA concerning the impact of a large piece of debris by another. In its annual report on the space environmentthe ESA has listed 1,409 satellites and other vehicles put into orbit in 2022. An unprecedented record in the entire history of space conquest, which will no doubt be beaten this year.

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