Space Debris Misses Each Other by a Minuscule Margin

by | Feb 3, 2023 | News Articles, Product, Space Exploration

It was a close shave between two derelict space objects on January 27. Had the collision occurred, it could have resulted in thousands of pieces of debris littering our LEO.

Time and time again, we are reminded of how incredibly close we come to infrastructural collisions in space due to orbital crowding. The increasing amount of man-made objects in orbit around the Earth poses a significant hazard to operational satellites, spacecraft, and even astronauts. Space debris travel at great speeds in orbit, making the junk pieces a serious threat. A collision with even a tiny piece of space debris can cause grave damage or even complete destruction of a satellite, leading to loss of communication and navigation services, as well as economic losses. 

Such an incident almost occurred on January 27, 2023, in our low earth orbit (LEO). Two large defunct Soviet space objects, an old rocket body (SL-8 rocket) and a military satellite (Cosmos 2361), almost clashed head-on and merely missed each other by a minuscule margin of 6 meters, with an error margin of only a few tens of meters, instead. Had these two collided, it could have resulted in thousands of pieces of debris littering our LEO. 

Leolab’s Low Earth Orbit Visualizer (Source: LeoLabs)

This near-miss situation was detected under the radar data of LeoLabs, a private agency that tracks satellites and space debris in low Earth orbit. The agency considers the specific area where the near-miss happened to be a “bad neighborhood”. In a series of tweets, Leolabs explained, “This region has significant debris-generating potential in #LEO due to a mix of breakup events and abandoned derelict objects. In particular, this region is host to ~160 SL-8 rocket bodies along with their ~160 payloads deployed over 20 years ago.” According to LeoLabs, the “bad neighborhood” is home to approximately 160 decades-old SL-8 rocket bodies connected to their 160 payloads. The fact that about 1,400 conjunctions concerning these defunct rocket parts were recorded between June and September 2022 is worrisome.

Growing number of satellites around Earth (Source: NASA)

Collisions create even more debris, increasing the likelihood of future collisions and potentially creating a cascade of collisions known as the Kessler Syndrome. This scenario could make certain orbital regions impassable, rendering them unusable for satellites and other spacecraft. As such, it is vital for the international community to work together to mitigate the growth of space debris and reduce the risk it poses to space operations. This can be achieved through responsible space operations, active debris removal efforts, and the development of new technologies to track and remove space debris.