Old Satellites Will Almost Collide Over Pittsburgh Tonight

Pablo Tucker
January 29, 2020

Scientists agree the possible collision would be very risky.

At that staggering speed, a collision would see space debris scatter everywhere. Experts from LeoLabs have warned that two defunct satellites will narrowly avoid a collision this evening, while travelling at 32,800 miles per hour.

The Infrared Astronomical Satellite (IRAS) and the Gravity Gradient Stabilisation Experiment (GGSE 4) will be travelling at over 14 kilometres per second (kph). According to the company, the two satellites are moving toward one another at speeds of nearly 53,000 kilometres per hour.

The metrics show a predicted missed distance between 15 and 30 meters, reported LeoLabs Inc. It's progressively unordinary, however, for two full-size satellites to come this nearby in space.

Why can't we stop them? According to Harvard-Smithsonian astronomer Jonathan McDowell, Poppy 5 (AKA 1967-053G) -the decommissioned and only relatively recently declassified military satellite - is attached to another satellite.

"Spacecraft have taken evasive manoeuvres to avoid things that are only within 60 kilometres". IRAS and GGSE 4 will be much closer - and one has a better chance of obliterating the other.

GGSE-4 has 18-metre-long protruding booms, which he doesn't think are factored into the calculations.

McDowell compared the collision to a one-ton truck hitting a person at 100 miles an hour; if the satellites were to collide, it would result in "100,000 times more energy than that". If the two satellites do go bump in the night, the collision itself might not be the most destructive aspect of the equation. The probability of a collision is one in 100, and considering the size of IRAS (11.8-by-10.6-by-6.7 feet) as well as the speed of travel, we really don't want them colliding due to the debris field it would cause and potential for subsequent damage to other satellites. This was the same concern expressed by experts when India conducted its first anti-satellite (ASAT) test - Mission Shakti - a year ago.

Stardust that is older than our solar system has been found inside a meteorite that rocked a small Aussie town, and the residents who live there love that they're part of the legend of a space rock that fell to Earth.

The bigger concern is what this means for the future as Earth's orbit gets more congested. To put that in perspective, there are a little over 2,000 satellites in orbit right now.

Speaking to Science Alert, Flinders University space archeologist Alice Gorman warned the large amount of potential space debris created by a collision make the encounter "one of the most risky possible collisions that we've seen for some time".

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