There was a collision between a U.S. Iridium communications satellite and a Russian communication satellite this week which is the first such collision in space. This collision has created high speed debris that threatens other satellites in nearby orbits.
This collision occurred 500 miles above Siberia on Tuesday. The Russian satellite was a non-functional derelict originally designed for military communication. The functioning U.S. Iridium satellite served as one of a constellation of satellites providing telephone and data communication world wide serving commercial customers and the U.S. Department of Defense.
Iridium has denied that it was responsible for the collision. The collision has scattered debris in orbits from 300 to 800 miles above earth according to Russian military space officials. The Russian officials do not understand why NASA and Iridium failed to prevent the collision since the functioning Iridium satellite could have been moved out of harm’s way. It seems someone was asleep and the wheel.
The Russian officials say the debris could threaten a large number of weather and earth-tracking satellites in similar orbits. They also believe the other 65 Iridium satellites in similar orbits have the most serious risk of being damaged by debris that could be traveling thousands of miles per hour. This debris could trigger a chain of collisions. The debris is being tracked by U.S. and Russian officials and it is believed this debris is traveling about 660 feet per second. NASA believes it may take weeks to know the full magnitude of the collision.
The Iridium satellites weigh 1,235 pounds and the derelict Russian Kosmos 2251 satellite weighed almost one ton. The Kosmos was originally launched in 1993 then stopped functioning in 1995.
The Russian officials went on to say other derelict Russian satellites in higher orbits may be venerable to collisions from the debris increasing the hazard to other satellites like the Hubble Space Telescope.
Iridium has stated the loss of the satellite could cause occasional gaps in service and they would have the problem fixed by Friday. They plan to replace the satellite with one of their eight in-orbit spares within 30 days. Iridium went on to state that their constellation of 66 satellites was uniquely designed to withstand such an event. Iridium has the largest communication satellite constellation in the world.
Currently U.S. officials have counted dozens of pieces of debris and they expect when the counting is done there will be hundreds and maybe thousands of pieces.
This is the first high speed collision between two intact satellites.