Our Solar System was born in chaos. Collisions shaped and built the Earth and the other planets, and even delivered the building blocks of life. Without things smashing into each other, we might not be here.
Thankfully, most of the collisions are in the past, and now our Solar System is a relatively calm place. But frequent collisions still occur in other younger solar systems, and astronomers can see the aftermath.
Update. It looks like we didn’t roll a 1 on the d20, and the satellites passed each other without an impact. But this will probably become a more common occurrence as the skies get more crowded.
Over sixty years of space exploration have left their mark in Low Earth Orbit (LEO), where thousands of objects create the risk of collisions. These objects include the spent first stages of rockets, fragments of broken-up spacecraft, and satellites that are no longer operational. As Donald Kessler predicted, the growing presence of “space junk” could result in regular collisions, leading to a cascading effect (aka. Kessler Syndrome).
This evening – on Wednesday, Jan. 29th – such a collision might take place. These satellites are the Infrared Astronomical Satellite (IRAS), an old space telescope launched by NASA, the Netherlands, and the UK; and the GGSE-4 gravitational experiment launched by the US Air Force. These two satellites run the risk of colliding when their orbits cross paths at 06:40 p.m. EST (03:40 p.m. PST) about 900 km (560 mi) above Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.
There’s something poignant and haunting about ancient astronomers documenting things in the sky whose nature they could only guess at. It’s true in the case of Père Dom Anthelme, who in 1670 saw a star suddenly burst into view near the head of the constellation Cygnus, the Swan. The object was visible with the naked eye for two years, as it flared in the sky repeatedly. Then it went dark. We call that object CK Vulpeculae.
One of the worst things that can happen during an orbital mission is an impact. Near-Earth orbit is literally filled with debris and particulate matter that moves at very high speeds. At worst, a collision with even the smallest object can have catastrophic consequences. At best, it can delay a mission as technicians on the ground try to determine the damage and correct for it.
This was the case when, on August 23rd, the European Space Agency’s Sentinel-1A satellite was hit by a particle while it orbited the Earth. And after several days of reviewing the data from on-board cameras, ground controllers have determined what the culprit was, identified the affected area, and concluded that it has not interrupted the satellite’s operations.
The Sentinel-1A mission was the first satellite to be launched as part of the ESA’s Copernicus program – which is the worlds largest single earth observation program to date. Since it was deployed in 2014, Sentinel-1A has been monitoring Earth using its C-band Synthetic Aperture Radar, which allows for crystal clear images regardless of weather or light conditions.
In addition to tracking oil spills and mapping sea ice, the satellite has also been monitoring the movement of land surfaces. Recently, it provided invaluable insight into the earthquake in Italy that claimed at least 290 lives and caused widespread damage. These images were used by emergency aid organizations to assist in evacuations, and scientists have begun to analyze them for indications of how the quake occurred.
The first indication that something was wrong came on Tuesday, August 23rd, at 17:07 GMT (10:07 PDT, 13:07 EDT), when controllers noted a small power reduction. At the time, the satellite was at an altitude of 700 km, and slight changes in it’s orientation and orbit were also noticed.
After conducting a preliminary investigation, the operations team at the ESA’s control center hypothesized that the satellite’s solar wing had suffered from an impact with a tiny object. After reviewing footage from the on-board cameras, they spotted a 40 cm hole in one of the solar panels, which was consistent with the impact of a fragment measuring less than 5 mm in size.
However, the power loss was not sufficient to interrupt operations, and the ESA was quick to allay fears that this would result in any interruptions of the Sentinel-1A‘s mission. They also indicated that the object’s small size prevented them from advanced warning.
As Holger Krag – Head of the Space Debris Office at ESA’s establishment in Darmstadt, Germany – said in an agency press release:
“Such hits, caused by particles of millimeter size, are not unexpected. These very small objects are not trackable from the ground, because only objects greater than about 5 cm can usually be tracked and, thus, avoided by maneuvering the satellites. In this case, assuming the change in attitude and the orbit of the satellite at impact, the typical speed of such a fragment, plus additional parameters, our first estimates indicate that the size of the particle was of a few millimeters.
While it is not clear if the object came from a spent rocket or dead satellite, or was merely a tiny clump of rock, Krag indicated that they are determined to find out. “Analysis continues to obtain indications on whether the origin of the object was natural or man-made,” he said. “The pictures of the affected area show a diameter of roughly 40 cm created on the solar array structure, confirming an impact from the back side, as suggested by the satellite’s attitude rate readings.”
In the meantime, the ESA expects that Sentinel-1A will be back online shortly and doing the job for which it was intended. Beyond monitoring land movements, land use, and oil spills, Sentinel-1A also provides up-to-date information in order to help relief workers around the world respond to natural disasters and humanitarian crises.
The Sentinel-1 satellites, part of the European Union’s Copernicus Program, are operated by ESA on behalf of the European Commission.
Even though it’s said that the average human eye can discern from seven to ten million different values and hues of colors, in reality our eyes are sensitive to only a very small section of the entire electromagnetic spectrum, corresponding to wavelengths in the range of 400 to 700 nanometers. Above and below those ranges lie enormously diverse segments of the EM spectrum, from minuscule yet powerful gamma rays to incredibly long, low-frequency radio waves.
Astronomers observe the Universe in all wavelengths because many objects and phenomena can only be detected in EM ranges other than visible light (which itself can easily be blocked by clouds of dense gas and dust.) But if we could see in radio waves the same way we do in visible light waves – that is with longer wavelengths being perceived as “red” and shorter wavelengths seen as “violet,” with all the blues, greens, and yellows in between – our world would look quite different… especially the night sky, which would be filled with fantastic shapes like those seen above!
Created from observations made at the Very Large Array in New Mexico, the image above shows a cluster of over 500 colliding galaxies located 800 million light-years away called Abell 2256. An intriguing target of study across the entire electromagnetic spectrum, here Abell 2256 (A2256 for short) has had its radio emissions mapped to the corresponding colors our eyes can see.
Within an area about the same width as the full Moon a space battle between magical cosmic creatures seems to be taking place! (In reality A2256 spans about 4 million light-years.)
See a visible-light image of A2256 by amateur astronomer Rick Johnson here.
The VLA radio observations will help researchers determine what’s happening within A2256, where multiple groups of galaxy clusters are interacting.
“The image reveals details of the interactions between the two merging clusters and suggests that previously unexpected physical processes are at work in such encounters,” said Frazer Owen of the National Radio Astronomy Observatory (NRAO).
An online simulator for galactic collisions (Adrian Price-Whelan/Columbia University)
Have you ever had the desire to build your own galaxies, setting your own physical parameters and including as many stars as you want, and then smash them together like two toy cars on a track? Well, now you can do just that from the comfort of your own web browser (and no waiting billions of years for the results!)
This interactive online app by Adrian Price-Whelan lets you design a galaxy, including such parameters as star count, radius and dispersion rate, and then create a second galaxy to fling at it. Clicking and dragging on the black area will send the invading galaxy on its course, letting you watch the various results over and over again. (If those SMBH’s hit, look out!)
Inset image: Hubble interacting galaxies UGC 9618, 450 million light-years away. Credit: NASA, ESA, the Hubble Heritage (STScI/AURA)-ESA/Hubble Collaboration, and A. Evans (University of Virginia, Charlottesville/NRAO/Stony Brook University)