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Two Satellites Collide in Earth Orbit

An iridium satellite flare as seen from the ISS.  Credit: Don Pettit, NASA

An iridium satellite flare as seen from the ISS. Credit: Don Pettit, NASA

A commercial Iridium communications satellite collided with a Russian satellite or satellite fragment, on Tuesday, creating a cloud of wreckage in low-Earth orbit, according to CBS News. A source quoted in the article said U.S. Space Command is tracking about 280 pieces of debris, most of it from a non-operational Russian satellite. It appears the International Space Station is not currently threatened by the debris, but it’s not yet clear whether the debris poses a risk to any other satellites in similar orbits. Iridium operates a constellation of approximately 66 satellites, along with orbital spares, to support satellite telephone operations around the world.

Neither NASA or Iridium Satellite LLC has officially released any information about the collision, and a spokesman for U.S. Space Command was not aware of the incident. But one NASA manager who asked not to be named, seemed to confirm the collision and said, “Everybody is saying the risk (of further collisions) is minimal to NASA assets.”
UPDATE: The Spaceflightnow.com article has been updated with quotes from a statement by Iridium and U.S. Strategic Command, that confirm the collision took place.

In an article on Spaceflightnow.com, Nicholas Johnson, NASA’s chief scientist for orbital debris at the Johnson Space Center in Houston, confirmed the collision. “They collided at an altitude of 790 kilometers (491 miles) over northern Siberia Tuesday about noon Washington time,” said “The U.S. space surveillance network detected a large number of debris from both objects.”

Iridium Satellite System.  Credit: Spaceflightnow.com

Iridium Satellite System. Credit: Spaceflightnow.com

The Iridium spacecraft are in orbits tilted 86.4 degrees to the equator at an altitude of about 485 miles while the ISS orbits Earth at an altitude of about 215 miles in an orbit tilted 51.6 degrees to the equator. Other civilian science satellites operate in polar orbits similar to Iridium’s and presumably could face an increased risk as a result of the collision.

Johnson said the collision is unprecedented. “Nothing to this extent (has happened before),” he said. “We’ve had three other accidental collisions between what we call catalog objects, but they were all much smaller than this and always a moderate sized objects and a very small object. And these are two relatively big objects. So this is a first, unfortunately.”

Sources: CBS News, Spaceflightnow.com


Nancy Atkinson is currently Universe Today's Contributing Editor. Previously she served as UT's Senior Editor and lead writer, and has worked with Astronomy Cast and 365 Days of Astronomy. Nancy is also a NASA/JPL Solar System Ambassador.

Comments on this entry are closed.

  • Tyler Durden February 13, 2009, 11:36 PM

    “Actually, Timmy said; ”
    The foam can then either burn up in earth’s atmosphere or have the solar winds blow it off into deep space, where someone else can deal with our problems for a change.”

    This directly implies. “I did NOT advocate dumping space junk in anyone’ back yard.”, is actually wrong. He did.

    If he says; “…someone else can deal with our problems for a change”; the who else did he mean? Hence my response.”


    Man, you’re dense.

    Read carefully:

    1. blow it off into DEEP SPACE
    2. let SOMEONE ELSE deal with it.

    Know any humans living in deep space?

  • Salacious B. Crumb February 14, 2009, 12:04 AM

    Oh! I see. Imaginary pal, Hobbes, reincarnated as Tyler Durden.

  • Salacious B. Crumb February 14, 2009, 12:26 AM

    Oh, did you think I’d forget about the film “Fight Club” and Tyler Durden. If I can recall, in this same film, the real name of the protagonist is never revealed. How convenient!
    So good to see you are so brilliantly cryptic and quick and
    transparent. Like most, soon the building will starting falling around you – and I thought you already said you were going to be swearing by now? Go right ahead…
    Now isn’t it a pity that your IP address are network administrator is just a little more difficult to hide, so I hope the moderators here see through your silly deception.
    Have a NICE day, wouldn’t you…

  • Gavin Flower February 15, 2009, 7:41 PM

    > # Silver Thread Says:
    > February 11th, 2009 at 3:55 pm
    > Keep right except to pass.

    Hmm… round here (New Zealand) that would break the traffic regulations. There are others countries that drive on the left side of the road, such as England, Scotland, Wales, Ireland (both parts), Australia, and Japan..

    Possibly the problem is that is that since Russia and the USA both drive on the right hand side of the road, then it is a clash of right wing ideologies??? :-)

    More seriously, the satellite crash decreases the safety of space travellers for many years in the future.

  • Huygens February 16, 2009, 11:54 AM

    Personally I think it is amazing that anything from space ends up landing on Australia, considering how relatively small it is.

    Maybe this is the Cosmos way of telling Australia to start getting back into the space business.

    G’day mates!

  • Salacious B. Crumb February 16, 2009, 12:28 PM

    The reason why Australia and New Zealand is the orbit of the satellite passes over the U.S. on the opposing side of the world in the orbit – presumably doing work for the U.S. territory. Furthermore, if a satellite is de-orbited, the target is the south Pacific Ocean, where there is a lower risk of hitting ground and their populations. The procedure obviously is not as precise as it should be.
    Also Australia in the orbit it the last place before the satellite crashes into the ocean.
    It would be interesting to find some statistics on the deliberate crashes back to Earth and if there are truly areas that are targeted or not.
    Needless to say, the U.S. has real pecuniary and legalistic interests in keeping this hush-hush. If Australia was a place of high incidents they would not be very unlikely want to openly talk about it.
    Huygens point about Australia getting back into space is a good comment, but with a population of about 22 million, monies available for a viable space industry. Still if Iran can do it, well I suppose Australia can?

  • robbi February 16, 2009, 5:53 PM

    Salacious B. Crumb-I just got back from Reno
    with some relatives and got the rains and snows we need in California. I am sorry, I was wrong for my blowup and you are correct, perhaps I suffered from middle age PMS, but I had no reason for getting mad for which I now don’t know why= but sorry

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