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A dead Russian spacecraft almost collided with a NASA satellite. The crash could have sent 7,500 bits of debris rocketing around Earth.

Morgan McFall-Johnsen,Ellyn Lapointe   

A dead Russian spacecraft almost collided with a NASA satellite. The crash could have sent 7,500 bits of debris rocketing around Earth.
  • NASA's TIMED satellite narrowly avoided colliding with Russia's dead Cosmos 2221 spacecraft this week.
  • In the worst-case scenario, the collision would have ejected 7,500 bits of debris into low-Earth orbit.

Two satellites nearly collided in space on Wednesday in a harrowing encounter that LeoLabs, a satellite tracking company, called "too close for comfort."

NASA's Thermosphere Ionosphere Mesosphere Energetics and Dynamics (TIMED) satellite passed by Russia's inoperative Cosmos 2221 spacecraft at a distance of less than 65 feet. That's shorter than the length of a tennis court.

Both of these satellites are non-maneuverable, meaning neither the US or Russia have control over where they go.

If they had collided, it could have decimated both satellites, blasting 2,500 to 7,500 fragments of space junk into Earth's orbit that would now be zooming around our planet at thousands of miles per hour, faster than bullets.

The fragments wouldn't have posed a danger to life on Earth, as any that penetrated our atmosphere would have burned up during free fall.

But it would have threatened future spaceflight and astronaut lives since the resulting debris could have made navigating low-Earth orbit far more treacherous.

"There are 'bad neighborhoods' where these massive derelicts are accumulating preferentially," LeoLabs' Senior Technical Fellow Darren McKnight told Business Insider in an email.

Avoiding collisions in these congested areas is becoming increasingly difficult as the amount of objects in Earth's orbit grows each year.

Earth's orbit is getting overcrowded

Near-collisions between large space objects like this are rare, but it only takes one to completely change the landscape of Earth's orbit and endanger countless other satellites, space telescopes, and even the International Space Station.

For example, two satellite collisions that occurred in 2007 and 2009, respectively, increased the amount of large debris in low-Earth orbit by roughly 70%.

And with the advent of mega-constellations of internet satellites, such as SpaceX's Starlink and Amazon's Kuiper, the number of objects in low-Earth orbit is growing more and more each year, increasing the risk of collisions.

In 2007, scientists estimated about 10,000 low-Earth objects. By 2021, that number had doubled. And most of it isn't even useful — it's space junk.

Roughly 70% is debris from damaged or defunct rockets, satellites, and nonoperational payloads, according to LeoLabs.

That's just what's cataloged, though.

The European Space Agency estimates that nearly 1 million bits of debris between 1 cm-10 cm are circling Earth, with another 130 million bits even smaller than that.

Space junk is so pervasive the International Space Station sometimes has to navigate around it.

In March 2023, the ISS dodged objects twice in one month, once to avoid a collision with a satellite and then again to maneuver around debris just a few days later.

Even the tiniest debris can damage the space station and endanger astronauts, though no astronaut has lost their life due to space debris (yet).

The race to clean up space

The consequences of space debris are very real, so much so, that the worst-case scenario has a name: Kessler syndrome.

In this scenario, a collision sets off a chain reaction, generating a catastrophic domino effect that produces so much space debris, no spacecraft can safely leave Earth for hundreds or even thousands of years.

However, preventing collisions today can offset a possible Kessler syndrome scenario in the future. And some governments and private companies have begun to address the problem.

New space-industry norms and even policies in some countries are prompting satellite operators to design their spacecraft to self-destruct when they die, by pushing themselves into a free fall that causes them to burn up in the atmosphere.

Last year the Federal Communications Commission — the US agency that regulates most communications satellites — took its first-ever enforcement action related to space debris when it fined Dish Network $150,000 for failing to properly dispose of a retired satellite.

Some governments seem less concerned. Both India and Russia have tested anti-satellite missiles by destroying their own satellites in orbit, creating new clouds of debris.

As for old, inoperable spacecraft that are roaming loose in orbit, like Cosmos 2221, NASA is outsourcing research and development to private companies to collect them.

In September 2023, the space agency awarded $850,000 to TransAstra for their concept of "Flytrap" space debris capture bags — basically, giant high-tech trash bags that would scoop up a lot of space junk.

Outside of the US, other companies are coming up with their own innovative disposal solutions. The Japanese company Astroscale designed a spacecraft with a magnetic plate that can attach to dead satellites and pull them into a free fall.

But these space clean-up technologies are still in testing. The European Space Agency plans to be the first to remove a piece of debris from Earth's orbit with its Clearspace-1 mission, scheduled to launch in 2026.

Meanwhile, LeoLabs hopes that its precision data on objects in orbit will help satellite operators foresee and avoid near-collisions like the one that happened Wednesday.

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