Two large chunks of Soviet space debris nearly collided 600 miles over the Earth and that was “too close for comfort,” scientists say. The near miss was reported by California-based LeoLabs, “the world’s leading commercial provider of low Earth orbit (LEO) mapping and Space Situational Awareness (SSA) services.”
Low-Earth orbit is full of debris and is home to satellites, spacecraft, and the International Space Station. And a heart-pounding near-miss between a rocket body and a dead satellite emphasizes just how crowded it’s gotten around our planet.
Tracking data showed the two missed each other by about 19 feet “with an error margin of only a few tens of meters.”
“Two large, defunct objects in (low orbit) narrowly missed each other this morning — an SL-8 rocket body (16511) and Cosmos 2361 (25590) passed by one another,” the lab tweeted.
A collision between large pieces of space debris could result in a massive cloud of new fragments that would remain in Earth’s orbit for years to come, endangering other missions and perhaps even creating a chain reaction.
As NASA scientist Donald Kessler famously first posited in 1978, collisions in space could cause a cascade of new smashes, cluttering the Earth’s orbit with even more space debris. This would eventually make it impossible to launch anything new into orbit.
Harvard astronomer and space debris expert Jonathan McDowell called the close encounter “very scary.” arguing that “there are close passes or near misses every day, just not quite as close as this.”
NASA reports the space junk issue goes well beyond just rockets, however. It is tracking “more than 27,000 pieces” of space junk, and even more is “too small to be tracked, but large enough to threaten human spaceflight and robotic missions.” The debris is traveling “at speeds up to 17,500 mph” and includes bits the size of a marble.
Scientists have been trying to find a solution for this issue and have been working on it for some time. This requires investing in debris removal technologies and missions.