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European Satellite Dodged Space Debris Hours After Reaching Orbit

Artist's conception of Sentinel-1, an environment-monitoring satellite from the European Space Agency. Credit: ESA/ATG medialab

Artist’s conception of Sentinel-1, an environment-monitoring satellite from the European Space Agency. Credit: ESA/ATG medialab

Yesterday, the European Space Agency disclosed a serious problem early in the Sentinel-1A mission, which lifted off April 3 on a mission to observe the Earth. The spacecraft — which reportedly cost 280 million Euros ($384 million) to launch — came close to a collision in orbit.

“At the end of the first day after the launch (4 April): all deployments have been executed during the night and completed early in the morning at the beginning of the first ‘day shift’,” read a blog post from the Sentinel-1A team on the European Space Agency’s website.

“As the first day shift nears its end, a serious alert is received: there is a danger of a collision with a NASA satellite called ACRIMSAT, which has run out of fuel and can no longer be maneuvered. Not much information at the beginning, we are waiting for more information, but a collision avoidance maneuver may be needed.  ‘Are you kidding? A collision avoidance maneuver during LEOP [launch and early orbit phase]? This has never been done before, this has not been simulated!’ ”

Worse, as controllers looked at the data they realized there was not one, but two possible points of collision. Cue the inevitable Gravity reference, and then a solution: to essentially move the satellite out of the way. The maneuver took about 39 seconds, and safely skirted Sentinel-1A out of danger.

You can read more about the situation in the blog post. ESA’s main Twitter feed and the ESA Operations Twitter feed also first reported the near-collision yesterday, nearly a week after it occurred. It should also be noted that the Europeans (among many other space agencies) are looking at ways to reduce space debris.

The successful liftoff of Sentinel-1A in April 2014. Credit: ESA-S.Corvaja, 2014

The successful liftoff of Sentinel-1A in April 2014. Credit: ESA-S.Corvaja, 2014

About 

Elizabeth Howell is the senior writer at Universe Today. She also works for Space.com, Space Exploration Network, the NASA Lunar Science Institute, NASA Astrobiology Magazine and LiveScience, among others. Career highlights include watching three shuttle launches, and going on a two-week simulated Mars expedition in rural Utah. You can follow her on Twitter @howellspace or contact her at her website.

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