About that Satellite Collision…

Space debris in low-Earth orbit (courtesy NASA)

Space debris in low-Earth orbit (courtesy NASA)

So, what was that satellite collision really like?

Glad you asked.

Two satellites with a combined weight of 3200 pounds met in a broadside collision at a closing speed of about 5 miles per second.  The kinetic energy of that collision generated around 18 billion joules, the equivalent of 4 tons of TNT.

Most of that energy was imparted on all those pieces that are now dispersing in the most crowded orbital volume, increasing the likelihood of another collision and an eventual chain reaction that creates a 500-mile high debris cloud dense enough to render that volume unsafe for any spacecraft.

I frankly don’t care if the U.S blames Russia or Russia blames the U.S., but imagine the consternation had this happened in 1985!  Today it’s merely a serious inconvenience; tomorrow it could completely change the way we launch and protect our billion-dollar satellites.

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2 Responses to About that Satellite Collision…

  1. Mike Trudeau says:

    This is a good, concise post. You get all the facts up front. Nice one!
    I thought there was some question about how they collided though, whether it was broadside or if one of them just caught the extended boom off the other one. This could mean the difference between a thousand and a million pieces of debris, from what I’ve read.

  2. Agreed. Aviation Week is hopefully going to have a more comprehensive follow-up in the future. But if we are able to track roughly 600 pieces that are at least 10 cm in size, than there is a high probability that the number of pieces smaller than 10 cm is at least an order of magnitude greater.

    Thank you for your comment.

    BBD

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