Space Debris Collision Narrowly Avoided
Photo credit NASA via Discovery News
The quantitiy of debris in space has been causing concern to agencies involved with exploring space and companies depending on satellites installed there. But now space agencies have demonstrated the capability of a new system which tracks debris and is intended to prevent collisions. The system detected a near-collision situation in which 3.8 tons of rocket booster waste left over from a Chinese launch threatened the 8 ton European Space Agency (ESA) Envisat Earth remote-sensing spacecraft.
The people at ESA were warned with sufficient time to boost ESA's Envisat away from the path of the oncoming rocket booster, a leftover of tests of Chinese anti-missile technology from 2007. After the crash between an Iridium satellite and Cosmos spacecraft last year, the Joint Space Operations Center (JSpOC) of the U.S. Strategic Command started a surveillance program that tracks potential for collisions, regardless of ownership of the vehicles involved. It is encouraging to see the system functions satisfactorily, because scientists predict 20 catastrophic collisions in the next 200 years with the current state of space debris.
Scientists have proposed ways to clear space junk by launching water at it and have taken measures such as astronauts sleeping in escape pods in reaction to the growing space debris problem. The amount of debris is increasing evan faster than human launches because debris that does collide shatters into more pieces, making the risk of hitting something grow -- a phenomenon called the Kessler syndrome after the NASA scientist who first voiced it.