Running Local

This Train of Thought Makes All Stops

Orbital Bumper Cars or A Message Sent Via Communications Satellite?

Posted by Bob Kohm on February 12, 2009

The New York Times is reporting that for the first time two large satellites have collided in orbit, an American Iridium sat-phone orbiter and what has been described as an “inoperatve Russian communications satellite”. The debris from the collision of the two spacecraft is a potential disaster for other spacecraft; indeed the International Space Station and its crew is already in danger from the debris field, which is expanding through not only its orbit but also through that of hundreds of other birds.

This mess is reminiscent of the January 11, 2007 Chinese intercept of a satellite in a demonstration of their ability to take out militarily significant sats. The Chinese came under fire from all quarters for the irresponsible test/poke in the eye which resulted in a gigantic cloud of orbital debris in an already crowded orbital path. Satellites, despite the rough journey they follow to get into orbit, are extraordinarily delicate instruments and can be easily damaged by tiny, high velocity mini-meteors and bits of space junk; huge chunks of defunct satellite are not, thus, a good thing. Worse, the bits of debris need to be tracked as their orbits change due to the initial energy of the impact and then either settle into an orbit or, more likely, degrade across many other orbits. Think about that– take two 1200+ pound plus machines loaded with ceramics and metals, smash them into each other at 17,000+ mph and then consider how many pieces they will break into. Now track the larger parts that can be resolved on radar for weeks, months, and years as they first expand their orbital paths and then plunge back through the orbital paths of thousands of other spacecraft on their way to burning up in the atmosphere sometime over the next few weeks to years. It is, to simplify, not good.

There are larger issues here. The first is that orbital space is getting very, very crowded as redundant sats are launched to do jobs that satellites of competitors are already doing while other satellites fail and replacements are launched, with new birds going up all the while for new purposes. Some say these collisions will become inevitable, although to this point only three smaller accidental collisions have been recorded. Sooner or later, either satellite design is going to have to dramatically change to deal with collisions (most likely an impossibility) or satellite losses are going to become more frequent, a problem that will grow exponentially as the failure by destruction of one satellite will lead to a debris field which in turn may well destroy others. It’s quite a mess.

The other concern here is that since these were an American and Russian satellite and the collision happened over Siberia that we have a Chinese test redux happening here. There have been rumors in the past that the US was covering some of its intelligence satellites as Iridium constellation birds, an exchange that was allegedly worked out as the US government bolstered the technologically brilliant but fiscally disastrous early Iridium days. Additionally, the US military and intelligence agencies make extensive use of the Iridium satellite phone system, and the satellite destroyed was, coincidentally, the one that would handle transmissions from a swath of Central Asia, already the arena of US-Russian competition in the previous few weeks as the Russians have sought to hamper our Afghan War effort by shutting down the Kyrgyz Manas air base to us.  Could this have actually been a Russian demonstration of their capacity to intercept an American satellite? There is some logic to it when you consider the belligerence of the Putin-Medvedyev regime as well as the “Test Obama” ethos that our rivals can be expected to adopt and indeed some have, especially the Russians. It’s also hard to imagine that this collision came as a surprise, given how closely satellites are tracked in orbit– it suggests that one of those satellites was actively maneuvering to get close o the other, otherwise this collision would likely have been seen coming in advance. I’ll be keeping an eye on Aviation Week (aka AvLeak) over the next few weeks amongst other sources to see what buzz pops up.

Either way, accident or attack, this is a nasty situation and one we will likely be visiting and revisiting in the future as space not only continues to fill up but also as its strategic importance is magnified.

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3 Responses to “Orbital Bumper Cars or A Message Sent Via Communications Satellite?”

  1. […] Bob Kohm comments: There are larger issues here. The first is that orbital space is getting very, very crowded as redundant sats are launched to do jobs that satellites of competitors are already doing while other satellites fail and replacements are launched, with new birds going up all the while for new purposes. Some say these collisions will become inevitable, although to this point only three smaller accidental collisions have been recorded. Sooner or later, either satellite design is going to have to dramatically change to deal with collisions (most likely an impossibility) or satellite losses are going to become more frequent, a problem that will grow exponentially as the failure by destruction of one satellite will lead to a debris field which in turn may well destroy others. It’s quite a mess. […]

  2. Yaro said

    Seems like the Russians would put a lot of their own satellites at risk by doing this, as you posit, not to mention the ISS. It doesn’t seem like it’d be worth the risk.

  3. Bob Kohm said

    The Chinese faced that same calculation and found it worth the risk to destroy one of their own satellites to simply demonstrate they had the capability. After decades of anti-satellite work by the Russians, it is not hard to believe that they came to a similar conclusion with the added bonus of not only taking down an American communications– perhaps– satellite but also putting Obama to yet another test. Or it could’ve been a legitimate accident, as hard as it is to believe that objects which are actively tracked and whose orbits are easily projectable might have simply bumped into each other while travelling at 17k+ mph without anybody noticing until after the fact.

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