About that Satellite Collision…

February 16, 2009
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.