A Russian rocket broke up in space above the Indian Ocean — leaving dangerous debris in its wake

A Russian rocket broke up in space above the Indian Ocean — leaving dangerous debris in its wake
Representative image: Space debris around Earth in low earth orbitESA
  • The Russian Fregat-SB upper stage rocket broke up in space over the Indian Ocean on May 8 — confirmed by ROSCOMOS on May 10.
  • It’s not uncommon for upper stages to get left behind after a satellite launch and turning into space debris after fulfilling their purpose.
  • As satellite launches increase, so does the amount of space debris and the associated cost of protecting active satellites already in orbit around Earth.
A Russian rocket broke down over the Indian Ocean on May 8 and the resulting debris could be a threat to satellites in orbit around the Earth. The Russian space agency, ROSCOSMOS, is still running its analysis on how bad the situation could be after confirming reports on May 10.

“Currently, we are working to collect data to confirm the quantity and orbit parameters of the fragments,” ROSCOSMOS told AFP. However, the US 18 Space Control Squadron, which tracks all objects in Earth’s orbit, estimates that there are at least 65 pieces of debris from the fallout.

The Fregat-SB upper stage rocket that disintegrated was the same piece of machinery used to launch the Russian Spektr-R satellite into orbit back in 2011. The radio telescope onboard the satellite stopped responding to ground control last year in January and the mission was brought to a close.

Space debris nightmare could leave Earth’s orbit unusable
Whenever a country launches a satellite into space, there are always bits and pieces left behind — like the upper stage rocket. They’re important to get satellites into position, but useless space junk once a launch is complete. “Launch vehicle upper stages contribute to space debris when they do not have enough impulse capability to de-orbit themselves after placing their payload into orbit,” as per the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics.

A Russian rocket broke up in space above the Indian Ocean — leaving dangerous debris in its wake
The information about debris objects smaller than 10 cm is based on a statistical model from ESAESA

Just one explosion is enough to create a domino effect that could blast through other active or defunct satellites. Enough debris could create a chain reaction rendering Earth’s orbit unusable — called the Kessler syndrome.


Due to this, protecting satellites from space debris is getting more important and more expensive. For satellites in geostationary orbit, the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) estimates that it could increase mission costs by 5% to 10%.

A Russian rocket broke up in space above the Indian Ocean — leaving dangerous debris in its wake
Thousands of bits of space debris that circle our planet – remnants of past scientific and technical endeavours, evidence of five decades spent in spaceESA

Space junkAmount
Active satellites2,000
Dead satellites3,000
Space debris larger than 10 centimetres34,000
Space debris larger than 1 millimetre128 million
Risk of collision1:10,000
Source: NASA

Running out space to launch new satellites
Even if new space debris doesn’t cascade, the increased risk renders that area of space useless for future satellite placement — real-estate that’s becoming rarer by the day as agencies, like Elon Musk’s SpaceX, send up mega-constellations to provide broadband connectivity and better coverage.

“Important space applications could be lost, such as weather forecasting, climate monitoring, earth sciences and space-based communications,” remarks the European Space Agency (ESA). More importantly, this could lead to a disproportionate effect on certain geographies and social groups.

As per the OECD’s analysis, even though we have tracking measures in place, the current level of compliance is far from sustainable — less than 60% of the satellite currently in orbit comply to global standards.

The Russian rocket breaking down is only another example of why global compliance is integral to protect the space environment. Mistakes that we’ve already made on Earth shouldn’t be repeated in the vast expanse of space. The universe may be unlimited but the Earth’s orbit can only hold so much debris before we run out of space.

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