“Unknown space object” crashed into Chinese military satellite

A Chinese military satellite, was damaged by an unknown object speculated to be “debris from a Russian rocket,” the most serious orbital collision since 2009.

The collision illustrates the growing danger of parts of derelict spacecraft and other debris in Earth orbit, where they can break up functioning equipment, as well as the extreme difficulty of figuring out what is happening in Earth orbit.

According to an investigation by Harvard astrophysicist and satellite tracking specialist Jonathan McDowell, China’s Yunhai 1-02 satellite probably crashed into a piece of space debris earlier this year.

That debris, according to McDowell, was part of the Zenith 2 rocket that launched the spy satellite in 1996. According to a database entry McDowell found, the part of the rocket was marked with the unusual notation, “Collision with satellite.”

“This is a new kind of comment — I haven’t seen such a comment for other satellites before,” McDowell wrote.

The evidence remains circumstantial, but McDowell has established that the two objects were in close proximity earlier this year.

Surprisingly, the Yunhai satellite appears to have survived the collision and continues to transmit radio signals.

The more objects we send into orbit, the more likely such collisions become.

“Collisions are proportional to the square of the number of objects in orbit,” McDowell says. “That is, if you have 10 times as many satellites, there will be 100 times as many collisions. So as the traffic density increases, collisions will go from being a minor component of the space debris problem to a major one. It’s just math.”

At worst, a single collision could cause an effect that leads to an exponential series of collisions, a phenomenon known as the “Kessler syndrome.”

But for now, we can only hope it doesn’t come to that.

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