Space Debris Problem Escalates

Today an inactive Russian satellite collided with an active, American satellite (owned by satellite phone service provider Iridium Satellite, LLC).

The collision, occuring over Siberia, has sent thousands of pounds of debris into high-speed orbit. The debris poses a danger to other satellites, which has a small possibility of creating a chain reaction of collisons. Such a situation would effectively cut off much of the world’s communications infrastructure.

Debris Moving Through Space

Debris Moving Through Space

This is not the first collision to occur.

On 11 January 2007 China successfully demonstrated anti-satellite (ASAT) missile capability by destroying an aging Feng Yun 1C weather satellite. China’s action must be considered from three perspectives: the militarization of space, the “environmental” impact of debris clogging the stratosphere, and China’s posture in foreign affairs. From an “environmental” perspective, the destruction of the weather satellite  resulted in an unprecedented cloud of debris in polar orbit. NORAD is tracking 1,037 large pieces of debris, and NASA estimates 35,000 pieces larger than one centimeter have spread from 200 kilometers to 4,000 kilometers above the earth. This has posed risk of collision to Low Earth Orbiting (LEO) satellites and may hamper future satellite deployment.

The Center for Space Standards and Innovation estimates that two-thirds of satellites it tracks come relatively close to the fragments on a regular basis.

The U.S. Satellite telecommunications industry is a $3.5 billion business. A detailed industry report is available here.

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