Several researchers have warned against space debris. Last March, their cautions proved to be true after the Chinese satellite Yunhai 1-02 came in contact with the remains of the Russian Rocket Zenit-2. Yunhai 1-02 gained severe damages during the collision.
In September 2019, China launched a military satellite for disaster prevention and mitigation, observing atmospheric, marine and space environments and scientific experiments. It was later reported to have suffered a "break-up event" on March 18.
#18SPCS has confirmed the breakup of YUNHAI 1-02 (#44547, 2019-063A), which occurred on March 18, 2021, at 0741 UTC. Tracking 21 associated pieces – analysis is ongoing. #spaceflightsafety #spacedebris @spacetrackorg— 18 SPCS (@18SPCS) March 22, 2021
At that time, the details of the collision were unclear. Many theorized it might have experienced problems with its propulsion system.
However, astrophysicist and satellite tracker Jonathan McDowell served a different explanation for the damage.
Chinese Satellitle Yunhai 1-02 Encounters Space Junk
On August 15, McDowell spotted an update on the Space-Track.org. This is a website that monitors space activity, with records available to registered users. McDowell said that the update wrote "Object 48078, 1996-051Q: 'Collided with satellite.'"
McDowell further explained that Object 48078 is a small piece of space junk, about 4 inches and 20 inches pieces from the Zenit-2 rocket that launched Russia's Tselina-2 spy satellite back in September 1996. There are eight debris objects registered and tracked from this rocket. However, only Object 48078 was cataloged on March 16.
48078 is a small debris object from the Zenit-2 rocket that launched a Tselina-2 electronic spy sat in Sep 1996. Between 1997 and 2021, 8 debris objects were tracked from the rocket. This one, added to the catalog in Mar 2021, has only a single element set, epoch 2021 Mar 16— Jonathan McDowell (@planet4589) August 15, 2021
Adding the collected data together, McDowell concluded that Object 48078 came within a 1km proximity with Yunhai 1-02 by March 18. This led to the satellite break-up report that was announced to the public.
McDowell also reported that 37 new debris got cataloged from the encounter. However, ground control managed to get in contact with the Yunhai 1-02 satellite, so the damage might not be catastrophic. It remains unclear whether or not the Chinese satellite is fit to continue its space duties.
Nevertheless it appears that the Yunhai satellite is still under control and able to make orbit adjustments (blue dots) so the collision was not catastrophic? pic.twitter.com/G0hMwJctyN— Jonathan McDowell (@planet4589) August 15, 2021
Space Satellite Tracker - The Space Junk Nightmare Continues
The Yunhai 1-02 incident was not the first orbital collision reported. According to Space.com, the Russian military spacecraft Kosmos-2251 collided with the operational communications satellite Iridium 33 back in February 2009. This generated 1,800 pieces of trackable space debris in Earth's orbit.
For reference, around 900,000 untrackable space debris (about 0.4-4 inches wide) exists in Earth's orbit. These objects move fast, approximately 17,150 mph, and could do serious damage to any satellites encountered.
This recent incident reiterates the earlier warnings of researchers. If space debris is not cleared up from Earth's orbit, the number of space collisions will increase to insane rates.
McDowell told Space.com that "Collisions are proportional to the square of the number of things in orbit. That is to say, if you have 10 times as many satellites, you're going to get 100 times as many collisions."
Contrary to these warnings, more space programs are being scheduled in the coming months. SpaceX, in particular, plans to add up to 1,500 Starlink satellites into orbit by August.
Space collisions might get increasingly frequent in the coming months, depending on the decisions of the space programs active on Earth's orbit.
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