Near-collision between NASA spacecraft, Russian satellite was shockingly close − less than 10 meters apart

A near-miss earlier this year between NASA's TIMED spacecraft and the Russian Cosmos 2221 satellite was even closer than originally thought: The two objects whizzed by each other less than 10 meters apart, or less than 33 feet.

The Department of Defense closely monitored NASA's Thermosphere Ionosphere Mesosphere Energetics and Dynamics Mission, or TIMED, craft to see if it collided with the Russian satellite on Feb. 28, USA TODAY reported.

The space agency said the two "non-maneuverable satellites" passed each other safely at 1:34 a.m. EST, but it wasn't until more than a month after the incident that NASA announced just how close the two crafts came to colliding.

An initial report from LeoLabs, a satellite monitoring company, said the satellite passed by the spacecraft with only an uncomfortable 65 feet of space between them. But NASA confirmed that space was much tighter.

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At the 39th Space Symposium in Colorado Springs, Colorado, on April 9, NASA Deputy Administrator Col. Pam Melroy said the satellite was much closer than it had appeared. The space between the two crafts was half of what NASA originally thought.

"We recently learned through analysis that the pass ended up being less than 10 meters (33 feet) apart − within the hard-body parameters of both satellites," Melroy said in the presentation, which was posted to YouTube by NASA. "It was very shocking personally, and also for all of us at NASA."

The satellites will near each other again, but their encounter in February was the closest pass in "current predicted orbit determinations," a NASA news release said.

Dangers of the collisions

At the symposium, Melroy said that if the two objects had collided, there would have been significant debris.

Tiny shards from the two spacecraft would have traveled at "tens of thousands of miles an hour, waiting to puncture a hole in another spacecraft, potentially putting human lives at risk," Melroy said.

"It's kind of sobering to think that something the size of an eraser on your pencil could wreak such havoc on our beautiful and amazing space ecosystem that we're building together."

What is the TIMED spacecraft?

The TIMED spacecraft is part of a science mission that studies the influence of the sun and human activity on Earth's lesser-known mesosphere and lower thermosphere/ionosphere, according to NASA.

It was launched in December 2001 and continues to orbit Earth as an active mission.

What is the Cosmos 2221 satellite?

The Russian satellite is a now-defunct spy satellite that weighs 2.2 tons, according to NASA. It is just one part of the more than 9,000 tons of orbital debris, or space junk, that NASA said orbits Earth.

NASA's website said it launched in 1992 from Plesetsk, Russia.

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: How close NASA TIMED spacecraft, Russian satellite came to collision