In an unprecedented space collision, a commercial Iridium communications satellite and a defunct Russian satellite ran into each other Tuesday above northern Siberia, creating a cloud of wreckage, officials said today. The international space station does not appear to be threatened by the debris, they said, but it's not yet clear whether it poses a risk to any other military or civilian satellites.
"They collided at an altitude of 790 kilometers (491 miles) over northern Siberia Tuesday about noon Washington time," said Nicholas Johnson, NASA's chief scientist for orbital debris at the Johnson Space Center in Houston. "The U.S. space surveillance network detected a large number of debris from both objects."
Air Force Brig. Gen. Michael Carey, deputy director of global operations with U.S. Strategic Command, the agency responsible for space surveillance, said initial radar tracking detected some 600 pieces of debris. He identified the Russian spacecraft as Cosmos 2251, a communications relay station launched in June 1993, and said the satellite is believed to have been non-operational for the past 10 years or so.
"As of about 12 hours ago, I think the head count was up (to around) 600 pieces," Carey told CBS News late today. "It's going to take about two days before we get a solid picture of what the debris fields look like. But you, I think, can imply that the majority of that should be probably along the same line as the original orbits."
He said U.S. STRATCOM routinely tracks about 18,000 objects in space, including satellites and debris, that are 3.9 inches across or larger. Tracking priority and "conjunction analysis"--identifying which objects may pose a threat to manned spacecraft--is the first priority.
"It's going to take a while" to get an accurate count of the debris fragments, Johnson said. "It's very, very difficult to discriminate all those objects when they're really close together. And so, over the next couple of days, we'll have a much better understanding."
Asked which satellite was at fault, Johnson said "they ran into each other. Nothing has the right of way up there. We don't have an air traffic controller in space. There is no universal way of knowing what's coming in your direction." … Read more