‘Worst-case scenario’ dodged by 19 feet in near collision of big space debris, lab says

NASA image

Two large chunks of Soviet space debris nearly collided 600 miles over the Earth and that was “too close for comfort,” scientists say.

The near miss on Jan. 27 was reported by California-based LeoLabs,“the world’s leading commercial provider of low Earth orbit (LEO) mapping and Space Situational Awareness (SSA) services.”

Tracking data showed the two missed each other by about 19 feet “with an error of margin of only a few tens of meters.”

Two large, defunct objects in (low orbit) narrowly missed each other this morning — an SL-8 rocket body (16511) and Cosmos 2361 (25590) passed by one another,” the lab tweeted.

“We’ve identified this kind of collision— between two massive derelict objects — as a ‘worst-case scenario’ because it’s largely out of our control and would likely result in a ripple effect of dangerous collisional encounters. Had (they) collided, it likely would’ve resulted in thousands of new debris fragments that would have persisted for decades. ”

LeoLabs notes the “conjunction” happened in what amounts to one of Earth’s “bad neighborhoods” in space: An area between 590 and 652 miles up filled with all manner of space junk.

The debris includes about 160 SL-8 rocket bodies and just as many payloads that were “deployed over 20 years ago,” the lab says.

NASA reports the space junk issue goes well beyond just rockets, however. It is tracking “more than 27,000 pieces” of space junk, and even more is “too small to be tracked, but large enough to threaten human spaceflight and robotic missions.” The debris is traveling “at speeds up to 17,500 mph” and includes bits the size of a marble.

“Since both the debris and spacecraft are traveling at extremely high speeds ... an impact of even a tiny piece of orbital debris with a spacecraft could create big problems,” NASA says. “Even tiny paint flecks can damage a spacecraft when traveling at these velocities.”

Between June and September of 2022, LeoLabs reports it tracked nearly 1,400 instances of derelict rocket bodies nearly colliding over earth.

LeoLabs is among the companies pushing for a space cleanup detail — before it gets any more dangerous.

“It’s imperative that we not only focus on collision avoidance but also debris mitigation and debris remediation to combat #SpaceDebris,” the company reported. “This requires investing in debris removal technologies and missions.”

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