March 19, 2013
China Wages Space Junk War On Russia
Earlier this year, a cold war began between two of the great global superpowers. And the emphasis should be on the word “cold.” This is because it was determined a piece of debris from a 2007 Chinese missile test collided with a Russian satellite in the frigid vastness of space
While the Russian satellite’s orbit trajectory wasn’t recognized as being off kilter until February 4, two scientists with the Institute for Precision Instrument Engineering in Moscow were able to track the significant change back to January 22. It was on that date, they claim, a piece of the Feng Yun 1C weather satellite, destroyed in the 2007 Chinese missile test, careened into the satellite, making it inoperative.
According to T.S. Kelso, a senior research astrodynamicist at the Center for Space Standards & Innovation (CSSI), “There has been a piece of debris catalogued by the US Strategic Command as a result of the collision.” This debris suggests that not only is the satellite inoperative but that it was also damaged.
The satellite, known as BLITS, was being used for scientific experiments. The collision and subsequent change of orbit have negatively affected its ability to continue this work. BLITS is a small glass sphere used for reflecting laser beams. Post-collision, it now faces the wrong way around rendering it useless for future research.
Russian scientists reached out to CSSI because of their ongoing program that monitors close satellite approaches. CSSI, in seeking out objects near BLITS around the time of the collision, found the Chinese debris was the only object they were able to find.
CSSI is now working with the Russian scientists to find out more about the collision.
The low-orbit event was set into motion some years ago when, in 2007, the Chinese destroyed their polar orbit weather satellite with a test of a ground-based, medium-range ballistic missile. At the time, US tracking sensors noted hundreds of pieces of space debris created by the missile tests. The US government, along with allies Australia and Canada, formally protested the launch test.
William Schonberg, a space debris expert and chairman of the Civil, Architectural and Environmental Engineering Department at the Missouri University of Science and Technology commented, “Collisions happen all the time, everywhere. Big collisions – now those are the rare ones.”
Experts postulate ‘junk to junk’ collisions probably happen all the time. However, since both objects in those collisions are typically unmonitored, they go unnoticed. According to Kelso, “…it would have been very difficult to tell there had been a collision if it hadn’t been for the fact that somebody was operating the satellite and noticed a collision.”
The scientific community has recognized the issue of space junk for decades. Though the problem exists, the answer is still just out of reach. Efforts have been made to deflect debris. However, in creating a new trajectory, the risk is run that the debris will be directed toward another object.
One strategy that is promising requires the use of soft-impact lasers. These lasers gently nudge bits of debris closer into the Earth’s atmosphere where it is expected they will burn upon re-entry. According to Schonberg, however, the challenge is making certain the re-entry occurs over an ocean to minimize the potential hazard to humans.
“Our technology has not caught up with our desire to clean up our mess” in space, Schonberg said.
“If nothing else,” said Kelso, this collision “was a bit of a reminder that it will likely happen again, and maybe we should get back to work trying to figure out what to do about it.”
With any luck, space will be the sole frontier of any cosmic hostilities between these or any other nations for some time to come.
Image Credit: Photos.com