Russian “Space Junk” – Caught In The Act

Article Updated: 24 Dec , 2015


While imaging the Large Magellanic Cloud, astrophotographer Doug Robertson got a real surprise when he went to process his data…. He’d accidentally recorded the uncontrolled return of the intermediate stage of a recent Russian rocket launch that just put three GLOSNASS satellites into orbit.

Eyewitnesses in Adelaide, Australia were astounded when a huge fireball lit up the skies shortly after midnight local time. The initial response was believed to be attributed to meteoric activity, but the 45 second event broke into several pieces and traveled along a parallel trajectory. Hearing the news, Robertson checked his photographic data and sure enough, during the time stamp of 12:12:38am, he’d caught the event. Like all good astronomers, the initial reaction is to immediately report and wait for an answer.

According to the Publicity Officer of the Astronomical Society of South Australia, Tony Beresford: “Last night at around 00:18CST sept 27 or 14:48 UT Sept. 26, an intermediate stage of a recent Russian launch that put 3 GLOSNASS satellites into orbit, re-entered the atmosphere and became visible travelling N-S over Adelaide. I had a full report from a person who saw the pass from Hallett Cove immediately after the event. It was an expected uncontrolled re-entry. The rocket stage had broken into several pieces. This aspect seems similar to other re-entries reported to me over the years. It took nearly a minute to pass over. A Sunday Mail reporter who rang this morning said they had a least a dozen reports. Some of the reports incorrectly used the term “meteor shower” to describe what they saw. Some meteors could give the same phenomena of multiple bodies on parallel paths, but that is not a meteor shower!!”

Is returning “space junk” a problem? You bet. In a very comprehensive article done by Nancy a few months ago called Space Debris Illustrated: The Problem in Pictures, she clearly illustrated how spent booster stages and discards from spacecraft could turn into a serious problem for future spaceflight if left unmonitored and uncontrolled. While the Russian return was expected, it’s still just another indicator of a mounting problem – inactive space hardware in orbit around the Earth .

According to NASA Shuttle program director John Shannon, “Next month’s shuttle flight to the Hubble Space Telescope faces an increased risk of getting hit by space junk because it will be in a higher, more littered orbit than usual. New number-crunching puts the odds of a catastrophic strike by orbital debris including bits of space junk at about 1-in-185 during Atlantis’ upcoming mission to Hubble. That compares to 1-in-300 odds for a shuttle flight to the International Space Station.”

Thankfully for everyone concerned there was no impact on the Shenzhou-7 mission – just a little late night excitement. Said Robertson, “Unfortunately I didn’t witness this naked eye. But as you see that main fragment/track looks extremely bright. Although rough, the crop clearly shows the number of fragments/debris surrounding the brighter tracks – reminded me off the shuttle disaster a few years ago. Glad it wasn’t anything to do with the manned Chinese mission. Wish I had put down my coffee and stepped outside a bit earlier to see it!”

Many thanks to AORAIA member, Doug Roberston for this fine catch!

26 Responses

  1. Jorge says:

    Is returning “space junk” a problem? You bet.

    I beg to differ. Space junk is only a problem while it remains in orbit, and there it can be a serious problem. But once it reenters (i.e., returns) and burns up in the atmosphere, it’s no longer a problem. It may ruin some astrophotos, but that’s about it.

    In orbit, though, and particularly in those orbits that are more populated, it may well lead to catastrophe.

    So no, I don’t think returning space junk is a problem. The problem lies in non-returning space junk.

  2. Ken says:

    …. unless said space junk fails to burn up on re-entry and drops nasty chemicals or radioactive materials into your backyard, or house.

    In the 70’s a Russian satellite with radioactive materials re-entered and spread dangerous debris across northern Canada.

  3. Jorge says:

    True. But those episodes tend to become rarer as the physics involved in atmospheric burn gets tuned up. Modern satellites are designed to completely burn up in the atmosphere once they reenter. We may still have a problem for a long time with older, dead and much too solid, satellites, though.

    OTOH, controlled reentries are always better than uncontrolled ones, because they can be aimed at remote areas, preferably in the Pacific, just in case some chunk large enough to do some damage survives all the way to the ground.

    I think some day an effort focused on space waste disposal will have to be put in action. Probably after the first major catastrophic incident with an orbiting piece of trash, as usual, and at an exorbitant cost. But if we really want to keep a consistent presence in orbit, and we do, we’ll have to go up there and perform a major sweep.

  4. Silver Thread says:

    Still a damned shame that stuff can’t be salvaged somehow.

  5. Damian says:

    > Still a damned shame that stuff can’t be salvaged somehow.

    I agree, Instead of designing our space technology to be disposable we should be aiming to design for multi purpose uses.

    Seems very short sighted.

  6. Omar Sheira says:

    Space technology shouldn’t be disposable, I agree. It costs too much to be disposed of. Besides, I’m sure there can be other benefits than a lower cost.

  7. dollhopf says:

    Ken noticed:

    “… radioactive materials re-entered and spread dangerous debris across northern Canada.”

    Jorge answered:

    “Modern satellites are designed to completely burn up in the atmosphere once they reenter.”

    With other words, we can “eliminate” radioactivity by pulverization and heating it up in the atmosphere? So at least it won’t have “side-effects” in one piece?

    Sorry, but LOL! The advantage of having the ground drenched with rain from a radioactive cloud instead of being contaminated by larger pieces is seductive.

  8. Jorge says:

    Doll, smart and brilliant as usual πŸ˜€

    Without the slightest hope that it’ll hit home base in your little gey cells, as Poirot would say, I’m still explaining it for everybody else.

    There’s one thing called background radiation, i.e., a certain amount of radiactivity we are all exposed to every day, everywhere. We are adapted to it, having evolved in an environment that includes that radiation. In other words, it’s not dangerous. Radiation becomes dangerous when the dose is way above that normal level.

    Now, what happens when spacecraft burn in the atmosphere? They don’t just disappear magically. Simply put, they are turned to gas and dust, which remain airborne and get blown away by the winds. Depending on a number of factors, including meteorology, how high above the surface the satellite burns, what kind of stuff comes out of the burn, etc., any radioactive material that is included in a satellite may get spread for a wide area or even the whole planet. Since most satellites (and I don’t say all because I don’t know what kind of secret stuff the military have put in orbit) have at most as much radioactive material as your closest X-ray machine, it’s enough that you spread that radioactive material through a wide area to make it basically undetectable against the background radiation. In other words, if it burns correctly, it’s practically harmless. If it doesn’t, if the rediation reaches the ground in a small area, then it’s dangerous.

    This is actually pretty simple. Even a complete moron might be able to grasp the concept. It’s called “dillution”.

  9. RenΓ© A. Enguehard says:

    Moreover, a gas will dilute so much in the atmosphere that we wouldn’t even be talking about parts per million by the time it hit the ground. The result would be something decidedly less radioactive than the smoke detectors inside of your house (which you live next to day in and day out).

  10. Woodchuck says:

    Given that we can control the orbit of satellites and spacecrafts around the earth perhaps an intermediate solution would be to gather up all the space “junk” and put it one smallish area orbiting the earth so that it could easily be navigated around. Then……. down the road “we” could use the future new addition on the space station the S.J.D.M. (Space Junk Dismantling Module) to have the astronauts take the old equipment apart and loaded on space shuttles that return to earth so the old stuff can be recycled properly. Mmmmpphhh….

  11. DaveS says:

    Re: gathering space junk – that’s an interesting idea.

    Imagine if this junk was not in space at all, but scattered around on the surface of earth. Imagine also that we don’t already have a global transportation network. What would be required to bring it all together in, say, Washington DC or some other place where dangerous materials would pose no threat to intelligent life?

    Assuming all the objects were more or less in known locations, a small team of people with a medium sized cargo plane, some utility vehicles, and a few crates of specialized locating and handling equipment could probably get most of it (by mass) within a few years. The number of strays would still be pretty high though, and the remaining pieces would be no less dangerous and far harder to monitor. In one sense, the chances of randomly happening upon one would actually go up.

    And for the real challenge, consider that the space junk layer has nearly twice the surface area of the earth, has a thickness of about a hundred miles, and that hardly any of the pieces has enough power and control to move into a narrowly specified location on their own…

    In other words, if this plan wasn’t built in to the mission already, it’s probably not going to happen. Building it in to future missions may be an option for some, but not all, and will add tremendous cost and complexity.

    And doing so would only help for pieces that are under control and operating normally. Things like shielding panels and booster stages that are simply discarded, or failed and damaged equipment, may not be controllable no matter what the expense.

  12. Jorge says:

    Well, it just dawned on me that the space station might be used to partially accomplish that. We’d need some equipment we don’t currently have, though.

    If we had an orbital maneuvering craft, i.e., a space ship, either controlled remotely or fully automatic as the ATV, designed to move around in Earth orbit, with fuel to spare (or perhaps with other steering tecniques not requiring fuel? Solar sails, for instance? It isn’t as if it had to be done right away… at least if we don’t procrastinate much longer in dealing with this issue) and handling mechanisms, we might be able to use it to, using the ISS as base, go around lower Earth orbit collecting some of the trash that it’s around and bringing it back to the ISS to be sent down with the Progress or the ATV.

    There are problems to this, though. First of all, it requires a very large degree of international cooperation, or even an international body just to deal with space junk. You have to make sure the guys who sent the stuff up agree with its removal, otherwise things might sour rather quickly. And then, if the current cargo ships will have to bring down not only ISS junk but also other satellites, they’ll have less fuel available for ISS reboosting and other ISS servicing missions. And, of course, a lower Earth orbit-based craft won’t have easy access to other cluttered orbital areas, such as the geostationary one.

    And whatever the solution, the costs would be very high. That’s a certainty.

  13. dollhopf says:

    If anybody read Jorges reply on my comment:

    I want to tell you that I have better things to do than answering on Jorges ideas (which he offers as usual cynically and sneering).

    And the reason why I can spare my time is that he would go to jail if he tried to handle with radioactive material as he proposes. Thank God for sanity! There are already institutions which protect the public from such guys.

  14. Jorge says:


    Oh dear. This is getting painful to watch.

    Kiddo, didn’t you say wou were going to ignore me? Go ahead, ignore me. Please. Do yourself that kindness. It would be the best thing you could do to stop humilliating yourself.

    And don’t forget what I told you about the diapers πŸ˜€

  15. dollhopf says:

    I mean, it was suggested to throw nuclear waste into the sun to get rid of it. That is an idea I can understand yet. But to throw nuclear waste into Earth’s atmosphere to get rid of? How morbid must one be!

    Such ideas show that the devotional reports of astronauts about how vulnerable the Earth and its thin blue band looks like from the orbit is just drivel.

  16. dollhopf says:

    It is not true that mankind has adapted to environmental radiation. That idea is a myth. The German Federal Office for Radiation Protection puplished a study wich found that 3000 die by lung cancer due to radon in buildings. That are alomst ten percent of all lung cancer death in Germany.

    We are not adapted to radiation. And there is also no threshold for it below which we are save. Who says the opposite is a liar or a fool.

    Jorge claims: “a certain amount of radiactivity we are all exposed to every day, everywhere. We are adapted to it, having evolved in an environment that includes that radiation. In other words, it’s not dangerous. Radiation becomes dangerous when the dose is way above that normal level.”

  17. Jorge says:

    Boy, you are obsessed, aren’t you? You just can’t stop bitching me. It’s only Jorge this, Jorge that. Jeez. Get a life. Get a girlfriend. Or a boyfriend. Go have fun, do what the other kids do on sundays. And if you don’t want to or can’t get a life, go study. You sorely need some study. What am I saying? You sorely need a lot of studying. You keep spitting nonsense after nonsense, one idiocy after another, like a machinegun of whackyness. You come here with some vague notions you got from some documentary in Discovery channel and think you know it all. Go learn some math, kid, go learn something about rocketry, go crunch the numbers and you might, perhaps, understand just how incredibly stupid is the idea of sending to the sun the nearly 100 thousand tonnes of radioactive waste our civilization produces every year. And go see what putting all that stuff in space would produce in rocket exhaust gases that would stay in the atmosphere and just how nasty those gases would be. Compare the environmental effects of that with those of proper storage of radioactive waste inside deep underground facilities. And I’m not even speaking about the cost. You might learn a thing or two and, hopefully, stop bitching me with your incredibly arrogant and absolute ignorance.

    If you’re not a complete and hopeless idiot, that is. That’s clearly a big if.

    There. No sneering.

  18. dollhopf says:

    Thanks, Jorge, for your advice. I’m fine – in contrast to your argumentation.


    (Damn! Can he realy bubble without taking any breath?)

    Do focus your attention away from Jorge’s tirade and back on the topic.

    The National Academies of Science released the “Health Risks from Exposure to Low Levels of Ionizing Radiation” report in 2005. Read it for free on The National Academies Press’ homepage!

    It says, that there is no safe level of exposure to radiation. Even very low doses can cause cancer. There is no threshold beyond which you are save. Neither you,nor Jorge.


    Don’t blame me for that. I only tell you: don’t let Jorge and Partners polute your environment with nuclear waste. It is already enough that he contaminates this forum.

  19. agast says:

    Geeeeez ….Jorge…I’d expect this kinda of vicious trolling on other web sites but not this one. You diminish your argument by orders of magnitude due to your incessant and sophomoric tirades despite having some rather important points. Please take your own advise and get ome sleep or boyfriends as the rest of us would rather hear all points of view and distiguish for ourselves truth from fiction. Thank You

  20. Cam says:

    I saw this. We were like wtf! Many people were drunk and were expecting to die.

  21. Jorge says:

    Agast, go read the background to this. I wonder what you’d do if some idiotic cretin just called you “sociopathic bloodsucker” out of the blue and then kept nagging you over and over and over and over after promising to ignore you, which just makes it all even more ridiculous). At some point, I bet you’d snap as I did.

    Yes, I did snap. I apologise for that. From this message on, that troll will be completely ignored. Problem solved.

  22. dollhopf says:

    Hello DaveS, your considerations here led you to the assumption, that collecting space junk in orbit “will add tremendous cost and complexity.”

    But one should also consider that the current transport costs for each kilo of net load are about $20.000. So if Space Junk Recycling would work, this would decrease the transport costs.

    And I guess a lot of people would invent concepts and methods to make SJR striking as soon as it would be on the agenda. Meanwhile, it should become an independent project, something like the The Spaceward Foundation.

  23. dollhopf says:

    in reference: what Jorge Says on September 29th, 2008 at 6:26 am;

    Sorry that ‘some idiotic cretin’ called someone a ‘sociopathic bloodsucker’. It did happen AFTER this ‘idiot’ and ‘cretin’ was called a ‘whiner’ who should ‘change his diaper’, and so on.

    ‘Some idiotic cretin’ also apologizes that he did snap. And, BTW, he would appreciate, if that ‘soc. bloodsuc.’ would, as promised, ignore that ‘troll’ completely.

    Tx in advance, if problem thus solved.

  24. David K White says:

    Here’s an idea. Simple satellite with solar powered asymmetric capacitor thruster, doesn’t move fast but has relatively infinite fuel supply. Satellite carries as much expansive resin foam as you can load onto it. When you get to the orbit you want to “sweep”, you pop the canister. Fwoosh, great big surface area that’s not important if something hits it. Then, over weeks, months, however long it takes, you “sweep” through your orbit, collecting everything you impact in the foam. Once you’ve captured everything you can, deorbit and burn. Granted, it would take a lot of such satellites, but they’d be dirt cheap, comparatively. Ok, somebody else find the holes I haven’t thought of.

  25. dollhopf says:

    Addressed to Mr. David S.

    Gathering space space junk is much easier than you assume. Just consider this picture:

    We see, that “space junk” is already captured. (no, I am not trying to be ironical, thus I don’t refer to the ISS on this picture as space junk ) The following “space junk” can be seen on that picture: Progress and ATV. I just want to bring the attention to the instance, that ATV is declared as “space junk” and hence burned up in the atmosphere. But as this “junk” is docked to the ISS it is already captured.

    It is not necessary to sweep through a “space junk layer” which has “nearly twice the surface area of the earth, has a thickness of about a hundred miles”, as you claimed earlier in this thread of the forum.

  26. Satweavers says:

    I think that even a ball of expansive foam meant to catch space debris would become space debris. Even if it is fluffy and light, like aerogel, if you hit it going 30000 miles per hour, it would do quite a bit of harm. It would have to have a short lived eccentric, atmospheric grazing orbit so it would eventually reenter, so there would have to be thousands of these deployed, and the debris is really sparse out there. De-orbiting stuff need not be a problem… it’s the solution to orbital junk. An international requirement that everybody who orbits platforms is responsible for eliminating debris associated with getting it there and deorbiting it at the end of its life cycle is important. Satellites could be engineered to break-up and incinerate more effectively during reentry to minimize risk to Earthlings. What do you do with a satellite that just dies in orbit? Once its RCS system fails, light pressure from the sun wall make it begin a tumble that will accelerate until centrifugal forces tear it apart. Also… Anti-Satellite kinetic kill vehicles should be banned. If used in a significant Sat-killing exchange tiff, GPS and satellites that we depend upon could be destroyed by the resulting debris. Imagine Hurricane Katrina without forecasts.

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