Two satellites could collide ‘directly’ above a populated area this week, experts warn


Illustration of the space telescope that could be involved in a collision tomorrow (Image: Nasa)

A pair of large satellites could smash into each above a populated area tomorrow.

That’s the warning from analysts who’ve been monitoring the movements of two orbiting pieces of space junk.

The first is a disused telescope called IRAS (13777) and the other is a shadowy experimental spacecraft launched by the US in 1967.

They are going to pass nail-bitingly close to each other at just before midnight on January 29.

This close encounter will take place above Pittsburgh in the US.

LeoLabs, a space debris tracking firm, wrote: We are monitoring a close approach event involving IRAS (13777), the decommissioned space telescope launched in 1983, and GGSE-4 (2828), an experimental US payload launched in 1967.

‘On Jan 29 at 23:39:35 UTC, these two objects will pass close by one another at a relative velocity of 14.7 km/s (900km directly above Pittsburgh, PA). Our latest metrics on the event show a predicted miss distance of between 15-30 meters.’

The objects are quite large, meaning a collision could be a major event. However, the chances of it happening are still relatively small, at about one in 100.

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‘These numbers are especially alarming considering the size of IRAS at 3.6m x 3.24m x 2.05m. The combined size of both objects increases the computed probability of a collision, which remains near 1 in 100.’

The company called for further work to establish ways of ‘deorbiting’ satellites safely rather than letting them zoom around the planet unchecked.

‘Events like this highlight the need for responsible, timely deorbiting of satellites for space sustainability moving forward. We will continue to monitor this event through the coming days and provide updates as available.’

If a collision does take place, it’s unlikely that the resulting debris will make it to Earth as it will burn up in the atmosphere.

‘Such collisions have happened in the past for sure. The thing that’s really interesting about this one is that the estimated close pass within 15 to 30 metres is incredibly close,’ space archaeologist Alice Gorman from Flinders University told ScienceAlert.

‘Spacecraft have taken evasive manoeuvres to avoid things that are only within 60 kilometres. So this is a really, really close encounter. And if this does actually come to pass, there’s potentially a large amount of debris that will be created.’

Stock image of the Russia satellite that’s feared to have blown up

Earlier this month, a mysterious Russian satellite was also feared to have exploded in space.

The Kosmos-2491 craft was launched in 2014 on a secret mission, prompting claims it was some sort of experimental space weapon.

Now it’s disappeared and one of the top astronomers in the US think it has blown up in some sort of accident – although he also said it may have been destroyed on purpose.

On Twitter, Jonathan McDowell of the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics wrote: ‘In Dec 2013 Russa launched a Rokot vehicle with three military communications satellites and a fourth, initially unannounced, payload, later acknowledged with the cover name Kosmos-2491 and associated with the RS-46 amateur radio payload,’ he wrote.

‘It appeared to end its mission in 2014,’ he added.

‘However, at about 1321 UTC on 2019 Dec 23, the satellite made a 1.5m/s orbit change and 10 debris objects have now been catalogued.

‘The inference is that Kosmos-2491 may have disintegrated, either through deliberate destruction, accidental battery or prop event, or through an accidental debris collision. I lean to accident since it is my guess the sat has been dead for several years, but it’s not certain.

After thinking about it for a while, the astronomer said it’s likely that left-over propellant (prop) caused an explosion.

The satellite launched in 2014

He continued: ‘After sleeping on it, I lean towards a residual-prop debris event.

‘Rocket stages which don’t do depletion burns sometimes blow up years later.

‘Although K2491 did not manoeuvre other sats of its type did; maybe the prop system failed and was still full.’

‘So that’s what I’m labelling it as for now, however an external orbital debris hit is only slightly less likely.’

The satellite is part of a trio of craft launched between 2013 and 2015 which caught the attention of spooks and military analyst in the west after performing a series of advanced manoeuvres.

This led Russian space agency chief Oleg Ostapenko to insist that the vehicles were not ‘killer satellites’ at a press conference in December 2014.

The three able to get within a few dozen feet of other satellites, potentially hijacking or even destroying them.

‘Looking at the history of space technology, it often starts with a small and cheap satellite that’s easy to launch, then the same technology gets incorporated into something larger,’ said Anatoly Zak, a Russian-born journalist and space historian.

‘You can probably equip them with lasers, maybe put some explosives on them,’ he added.

‘If [one] comes very close to some military satellite, it probably can do some harm.’

The United States, Sweden, Japan and China have all already tested similar spacecraft and claimed they were designed for satellite maintenance, rather than orbital warfare.

But it’s feared the spaceships are actually intended to destroy other satellites.

Future conflicts are likely to involve space warfare (Credit: Getty/ESA)

The UK needs to build a space force and get ready to fight terrorists and wage war in the heavens, industry leaders warned last year.

In the future, terrorists and nation-states will be able to wreak economic havoc by targeting communications satellites.

The incoming president of UK Space, Will Whitehorn, has said ‘we will see and should see the creation of a space force in the UK’ to help protect the nation against these new threats.

Speaking at the UK Space Conference in Newport, the former president of Virgin Galactic said: ‘My view is that as we go forward, there clearly has to be a complete and utter co-ordination of the way that government at all levels responds to the industrialisation of space.

‘We are about to go through an industrial revolution in space, and it will be nothing short of that.

‘We are at the stage where a lot of technologies have been developed that can do many of the things – that if you were listening to Greta at the UN yesterday, or you see what is going on in the reality of climate change – a lot of the industrial processes or necessities that we will need are going to be up there, in that hostile environment in space.

‘If we do that then we have to be able to defend ourselves in space, if we know there are non-state and state actors who may be inclined to disrupt in the future the ability of any nation state to operate commercially in space.’

Whitehorn said that a time was coming when having ‘a co-ordinated approach to space across all of our military is going to be important’.

He explained that it was not the role of UK Space, the space trade association, to be involved in that directly.

But he said its role as the commercial representative of the industry was to make it clear that when dealing with hostile situations, it is better to have somebody out there who is going to protect the interests of all in space.

Currently, space warfare is likely to involve little more than rival nations destroying or jamming each other’s satellites.

Whilst this would knock out communications on the ground and potentially cause economic damage, it would not actually kill civilians back on Earth.

However, knocking out a satellite will soon be relatively straight-forward.

Whitehorn added: ‘It is clear that these technologies are capable of being taken to a level of relatively unsophisticated use.

‘What nation-states like the UK have to do is make sure we are ahead of that game. And we only get ahead by thinking about it in advance.’

In 2018, US intelligence agencies said both China and Russia would have ‘destructive’ space weapons within a few years.





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