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Space Science

Satellites Collide In Orbit 456

DrEnter writes "According to this story on Yahoo, two communications satellites collided in orbit, resulting in two large clouds of debris. The new threat from these debris clouds hasn't been fully determined yet. From the article, 'The collision involved an Iridium commercial satellite, which was launched in 1997, and a Russian satellite launched in 1993 and believed to be nonfunctioning. Each satellite weighed well over 1,000 pounds.' This is the fifth spacecraft/satellite collision to occur in space, but the other four were all fairly minor by comparison."
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Satellites Collide In Orbit

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  • by fuzzyfuzzyfungus ( 1223518 ) on Wednesday February 11, 2009 @09:07PM (#26821761) Journal
    Hopefully the wreckage from this one doesn't end up causing any unpleasant chain reactions. Not only are satellites really expensive, we currently have no especially good way of ridding ourselves of orbital debris. It would suck to fill our good bits of orbit with trash.
  • Re:First collision (Score:5, Insightful)

    by joocemann ( 1273720 ) on Wednesday February 11, 2009 @09:07PM (#26821763)

    That would probably be better than all the debris spreading out and remaining in orbit. That debris, now hundreds of individual pieces, is now able to cause trouble to anything trying to pass through its 'air space', including more satellites, etc.

    Some say that the day we have combat/war in space is the last day we will enter space because the debris will block exit/entry.

  • Re:First collision (Score:5, Insightful)

    by interkin3tic ( 1469267 ) on Wednesday February 11, 2009 @09:12PM (#26821821)

    I know they can FEEL endless when you're in them, but suburbs do not actually take up most of the earth's surface. The chances of that happening are fairly low.

  • by JoshuaZ ( 1134087 ) on Wednesday February 11, 2009 @09:13PM (#26821839) Homepage
    I don't have the probabilities off hand but it is more likely than one might think at first glance. The set altitudes that are useful is not that large, especially for satellites that have the same job (in this case, communication). Furthermore, satellites are circling repeatedly so there are many opportunities where orbits will cross paths. That said, if I were the owners of the Iridium satellite I'd be pissed off right now. They've just lost a very expensive piece of equipment in what should be a preventable mishap. Somebody is going to get fired.
  • by funky49 ( 182835 ) on Wednesday February 11, 2009 @09:15PM (#26821863) Homepage
    Was this really bound to happen? I always assumed that when nations put stuff in space, they always included a way to make it de-orbit and burn up in the atmosphere. Littering space is dumb. Can someone please be less politically correct and put some blame on the non-operational Russian sat? Iridium Satellite should file a claim against the Russians. How come a "conjunction analysis" isn't done for all of the objects they're tracking in space? Does there need to be a "Tracking@Home" app for the ps3? In any case, I have a new development idea for the techno-thriller I'm writing... in the future nobody has satellites because of space terrorism. Or maybe I'll start an orbital mechanics company whose job it is to clean up debris and old crap around Earth.

    Funny, I kinda wrote about this in my song "Starblazer [cdbaby.com]"...

    earthlings, knee deep in things
    in orbit there's garbage rings
  • by Dripdry ( 1062282 ) on Wednesday February 11, 2009 @09:16PM (#26821879) Journal

    I'm going to play devil's advocate for a second here:

    What if it isn't a bad thing? What if the debris cloud does start some sort of slow chain reaction that knocks out a lot of satellites in orbit and rings earth with debris?

    Although it would be expensive to clean up it would definitely put peoples' minds back on space technology if they suddenly couldn't get tv, phone, internet, gps, or other critical services. It could spur development to clean things up, avoid the problem in the future, and get more nations/people/viable technology in space.

    In our "convenience at any cost" age, perhaps this sort of inconvenience is the kind of thing to slap some sense into us.

  • by fuzzyfuzzyfungus ( 1223518 ) on Wednesday February 11, 2009 @09:28PM (#26821967) Journal
    That seems suspiciously close to "the broken window fallacy" in space. It would cost an enormous amount of money, time, resources, and R&D to clear up a significant orbital debris field. All those resources would(with the exception of any spinoff tech) be squandered, spent just to get us back to where we were before.

    Also, I suspect that such an outcome would be as likely to spur regression as it would expansion. Space is extremely useful, for satellite mapping, GPS, astronomy, and the like; but it isn't necessary. If the costs of exploiting it rise, as they would, drastically, if satellites were constantly knocked out by debris fields; you'd likely see a scaling back of space exploration. Military surveillance and location stuff would probably make the cut; but you could forget about "nonessentials" like orbital telescopes, cheap satellite photography, and the like.
  • by windsurfer619 ( 958212 ) on Wednesday February 11, 2009 @09:50PM (#26822151)

    Starboard is to the right!

  • by phulegart ( 997083 ) on Wednesday February 11, 2009 @10:17PM (#26822371)

    If it was your job to track satellites, because you were part of the department that launched the satellite that fell on your car.. then YES, it would be your fault that you did not move your car out of the way.

    Now, since the people who owned the Iridium Satellite were ALSO in charge of maintaining it... which includes knowing it's position in the sky... they were responsible for making sure that it did not collide with anything. In a perfect world (or above it) there would have been people closely monitoring both trajectories, with the ability to adjust each satellite.

    So either no one was watching at Iridium, which means someone needs to be sacked for not properly monitoring the unit... or those who were watching assumed that the Russian satellite was going to be the one that moved, and someone needs to be sacked for THAT decision.

    But if you want an analogy that involves cars...
    Two cars head for the same parking spot. If one of those cars has no driver, and is just rolling in that direction (the dead Russian satellite that was probably identified long before the collision) and you did NOTHING after identifying that there was no one behind the wheel, then it would be your fault when that car collided with you.

    Still want a car analogy? Ok. You are in a car, heading to cross railroad tracks. You can see quite a bit of the road ahead, and you can see a train coming. You can even tell that you are going to cross the tracks just in time to get hit by that train. Now... why would you assume that the other guy is going to move? In this case, it can't. It won't even be able to slow down in time. You are the one with maneuverability. Thus, if you do collide with that train, it will be your fault.

    Yeah, maybe they did not KNOW that the Russian Satellite was dead. So you assume the conversation went like this?
    "Hey, our satellite is gonna hit a Russian bird."
    "Hmmm... they had better alter that orbit"
    "Why don't we alter our orbit?"
    "What? That's crazy talk. No reason OUR orbit should be altered. Let them move theirs." ... time passes...
    "They didn't change their orbit."
    "Well, we aren't altering ours."

  • by slashtivus ( 1162793 ) on Wednesday February 11, 2009 @10:32PM (#26822489)
    I guess I'll put this in this thread since the others were nothing but attempts at "Funny" mod points:

    Are not the Iridium (and I will assume the Russian satellite as well) very low-orbiting satellites? This would mean the orbits will decay rather rapidly making this really not that big of a deal over the long term?

    Some of the pieces will have gained orbital momentum and go higher, but really most of it should be getting some atmospheric drag and decay quickly.

  • by tweak13 ( 1171627 ) on Wednesday February 11, 2009 @11:08PM (#26822761)
    Yes, these were in what would be considered low earth orbit. How much of a problem this is going to be depends on how many other objects are in nearby orbits that may collide with part of this cloud. The thing about atmospheric drag is that the atmosphere isn't really all that uniform. How a chunk of wrecked satellite with an unknown shape and size is going to react can be predicted, but only to a certain extent. Yes, everything will eventually fall down, even the stuff in a "higher orbit." Those orbits were just made more elliptical, and will eventually come down to about the same altitude the collision happened at. It's going to take awhile though, and those pieces that are too small to track are going to spread over wider and wider areas until they finally reenter. People will be furiously calculating probabilities of collisions for a long time. Decaying 'quickly' is relative I guess, while there is drag to bring them down, pieces will still be up there for years.
  • Re:First collision (Score:1, Insightful)

    by BakaHoushi ( 786009 ) <Goss.SeanNO@SPAMgmail.com> on Wednesday February 11, 2009 @11:21PM (#26822829) Homepage

    Fortunately, we have an atmosphere

    Not for much longer, if we have anything to do with it!

  • Re:First collision (Score:5, Insightful)

    by niw ( 996534 ) on Thursday February 12, 2009 @12:15AM (#26823139)

    Fortunately, we have an atmosphere

    Not for much longer, if we have anything to do with it!

    It composition may become not very useful to us but its not going to escape the gravity well anytime soon.

  • by Anonymous Coward on Thursday February 12, 2009 @12:15AM (#26823141)

    No it isn't done for everything - at least not by anyone with the high accuracy data needed to effectively do conjunction analysis.

  • Re:First collision (Score:3, Insightful)

    by ScrewMaster ( 602015 ) * on Thursday February 12, 2009 @12:29AM (#26823227)

    Seriously though ... this might be the impetus to develop force shields a la Star Trek. It makes sense, when enough space junk builds up, deflector shields will be the only way to safely escape Earth orbit.

    Well, there will have to be some major breakthroughs in physics for that to happen. Electromagnetics won't help much, because a lot of that junk is non-ferrous.

  • Re:First collision (Score:3, Insightful)

    by Ozan ( 176854 ) on Thursday February 12, 2009 @02:53AM (#26824003) Homepage

    Well, there will have to be some major breakthroughs in physics for that to happen. Electromagnetics won't help much, because a lot of that junk is non-ferrous.

    If I punch you, the force of the blow will be transfered from my fist to your body by nothing else than electromagnetism. You don't need to be ferromagnetic for this to work. The outer electrons of the outer atoms of your body will be repelled by the outer electrons of the outer atoms of my fist.

    Outside of atoms, there are no forces other than gravity and electromagnetism.

  • Re:First collision (Score:2, Insightful)

    by Anonymous Coward on Thursday February 12, 2009 @03:18AM (#26824141)

    No, that's an electrostatic force, not electromagnetic, and the force of matter interacting with other matter is not only comprised of that force alone. Making it act over more than a few millimeters against a non-charged object (such as random space junk) is, at this point, not possible.

    In other words, your retort about punching reveals that you have a total lack of understanding of physics and are an ignorant smart-ass.

  • Re:First collision (Score:2, Insightful)

    by Ozan ( 176854 ) on Thursday February 12, 2009 @03:34AM (#26824221) Homepage

    No, that's an electrostatic force, not electromagnetic, and the force of matter interacting with other matter is not only comprised of that force alone.

    And the difference between electrostatic and electromagnetic forces would be what? There is no reason to keep them apart, it's the same phenomenon. And what would that other force be that matter is interacting with outside of atoms, other than gravity?

    Making it act over more than a few millimeters against a non-charged object (such as random space junk) is, at this point, not possible.

    That is correct of course, as of now, but the parent poster made it look like it would be fundamentally impossible.

  • Re:First collision (Score:5, Insightful)

    by Anonymous Coward on Thursday February 12, 2009 @03:57AM (#26824375)

    I was a bit skeptical about this, but I did the math. A large grain of sand (0.03g) would have the same kinetic energy of a 9mm slug at roughly 5.8km/s.

    Orbital velocity at 10K km is 4.93km/s, so it's a reasonable value - and the relative velocity could be doubled if the objects collided head-on.

    Now, I'm sure the shuttle could take shots from a 9mm fine and that much of the energy wouldn't be deposited - it would vaporize the much less massive object, after all. Of course, all of the energy would be concentrated in a very small area and could do a lot of damage...

    Really fascinating. I should be sleeping at 3am, however, rather than calculating orbital impact energies on the back of an envelope...

  • Re:First collision (Score:1, Insightful)

    by Squeeonline ( 1323439 ) on Thursday February 12, 2009 @04:57AM (#26824677)

    "Each satellite weighed well over 1,000 pounds."

    I think you should be safe, because in space they don't weight anything - no gravity. However they do have a mass.

  • Re:First collision (Score:1, Insightful)

    by Anonymous Coward on Thursday February 12, 2009 @05:16AM (#26824765)

    Electromagnetic is a catch-all term used to describe the force that controls all things electrical and magnetic. In fact there are only four forces that control all (known) interactions in the universe: gravity, electromagnetism, weak, and strong. And as the GP quite correctly pointed out, only two of those are observable on macroscopic scales, gravity and electromagnetism. Since you acknowledge that a punch would be an electrostatic interaction, from there I shall leave it as an excercise for the reader as to which of the two major forces that would be classified under.

    While your point about the possibility of using this to act on non-charged objects is quite correct, it's also largely irrelevant, given that the entire point of this line of discussion was the potential for future developments in technology. The GP was merely pointing out that our current understanding might one day be sufficient to develop the Star Trek style deflector shields that were proposed, as opposed to some crazy as-yet-undiscovered future tech.

    Normally I wouldn't have bothered to correct you, but I thought an exception would be warranted in this circumstance, due to the "you have a total lack of understanding of physics and are an ignorant smart-ass" line, a comment that I thought would be much more appropriately applied to yourself. (And yes, IAAPhysicist.)

  • Paranoid fail. (Score:5, Insightful)

    by Xest ( 935314 ) on Thursday February 12, 2009 @05:39AM (#26824873)

    Only on Slashdot could something so paranoid, full of speculation and even illogical when you take the facts into account get modded insightful, not once, but twice.

    I'm not even sure what's so difficult to believe about two satellites colliding when there's so many up there. Even two relatively highly maneuverable manned planes collided in the UK a day or two ago, so it doesn't seem that difficult to think that two much less maneuverable, one of which no longer even active and working, unmanned objects might be able to collide.

    Putin has spent the last few years selling himself in martial arts videos, showing off his ability to shoot tigers, flexing his muscles whilst fishing and many other such show off type things. Don't you think he'd jump at the chance to say "Hey, by the way, Russia just show down a satellite too?". Even if they realised they screwed up by somehow hitting a commercial satellite too don't you think the commercial satellite owners would say something? don't you think the US, China and millions of other people capable of tracking such events would scream at the chance to say "Russia just flung something into space and taken out a civilian satellite"?

    I don't even see what's so coincidental about the timing, what's so special that now, over 2 years after China did it would be a good time for Russia to have a pop at it again too? Is there something special about around 2 years and 3 weeks later that allows it to be defined as coincidental?

    But there's a bigger problem with your theory, ASAT technology isn't even new, the Russians built ASAT kit back in the 60s, 70s and 80s, the US has had F15 launchable ASAT missiles since at least the 80s, possibly the 70s. In fact, looking at Wikipedia (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Anti-satellite_weapon#USSR.2FRussia) it states Russia has pulled off 23 test launches and has had an operaitonal ASAT system since 1973.

    If anyone's going to show off ASAT capability next it'll be somewhere like Iran or India most likely. I like people who think outside the box and come up with new ideas but come on if we're going to have conspiracy theories and mod them insightful let's at least have them consist of some degree of plausibility and at least make some sense please?

  • by captainpanic ( 1173915 ) on Thursday February 12, 2009 @06:02AM (#26824995)

    One big satellite has relatively little drag-to-weight ratio. Many small pieces have a much larger drag-to-weight ratio because the surface area has greatly increased, but the total mass is still the same.

    therefore, it will come down faster than when there was no crash. In any case, within the foreseeable future.

  • Re:First collision (Score:5, Insightful)

    by Dan541 ( 1032000 ) on Thursday February 12, 2009 @06:15AM (#26825063) Homepage

    Who would have thought that simply discarding waste would ever become a problem?

  • by fantomas ( 94850 ) on Thursday February 12, 2009 @06:22AM (#26825109)

    Paranoid folks in Russia on the other hand might argue that the US satellite, having power, was directed into the Russian satellite to prove that the USA has the capacity to take out Russian military satellites as and when it wishes, and that it chose to do so in a less confrontational way by taking out a no longer functional satellite. Using a functional commercial satellite clearly shows that the US government and can turn any US company assets to its use so Russia better beware, the US power is greater than it seems.

    If you're paranoid you can argue anything to fit into your world view :-)

  • Re:First collision (Score:5, Insightful)

    by The_Wilschon ( 782534 ) on Thursday February 12, 2009 @10:33AM (#26827019) Homepage
    IAAParticle Physicist, working on the Collider Detector at Fermilab, looking for the Higgs boson. Am I sufficiently credentialed for you, or will you "call my bluff" like the poor AC below? Electrostatic forces are an effect of the electromagnetic (or to go even further, the electroweak) interaction. GP is correct, P is incorrect.

    Usually, the four fundamental interactions are given as gravity, electromagnetism, and the weak and strong nuclear interactions. At high enough energies, electromagnetism and the weak nuclear interaction turn out to be the same thing. At even higher energies, maybe the others will merge in as well.

    Except gravity, these interactions have pretty well understood quantum field theoretic descriptions, motivated by particular symmetries (and their breaking sometimes), involving the exchange of momentum and other quantum numbers via various particles (the gauge bosons). The gauge boson responsible for the electromagnetic interaction is the well known photon.

    But you don't have to take my word for it. Please run down to your local library and pick up a copy of John David Jackson's _Classical Electrodynamics_, and a copy of Peskin and Shroeder's _Quantum Field Theory_. These are the standard graduate textbooks for their respective fields, and will provide all the detail you might wish to find.

    Also, in the future, please look these things up before spouting off what you remember from your "year 10 science" class. You probably don't remember it correctly, if today is any indication.
  • by khallow ( 566160 ) on Thursday February 12, 2009 @03:33PM (#26831859)

    oh good to know - i'll let the ten of thousands of fishermen and the families that depend on them, that their not as important to the future of their nation as a couple of satellites.

    I get the impression you disagree for some reason. But this is true.

    And i'll let the shipping companies know that they are no longer the main method of transporting goods and as such the protection and conservation of their medium of travel (teh oceans) aren't worth it anymore. Turns out i missed the story

    Protection and conservation of the oceans actually interferes with the shippers' business since they're the ones doing the majority of the littering. And litter doesn't significantly interfere with shipping.

    Its not as if thats a big industry or anything - or as if the oceans cover more than half of the world (and increasing) that we currently live on.

    The thing to remember is that space is a lot bigger than the oceans. It has more stuff. For humans to even travel in such a medium requires knowledge at the cutting edge of what we can do. OTOH, travel on the oceans requires something that floats. It no longer challenges us in any meaningful way.

"If the code and the comments disagree, then both are probably wrong." -- Norm Schryer