Two large pieces of space debris – an old rocket body and a military satellite – nearly collided on Friday.
LeoLabs, a private company that works to track satellites and objects in low Earth orbit, tweeted that, had the objects hit each other, the collision would have resulted in thousands of fragments that would have “persisted for decades.”
“Too close for comfort… Two large, defunct objects in #LEO narrowly missed each other this morning — an SL-8 rocket body (16511) and Cosmos 2361 (25590) passed by one another at an altitude of 984 km,” the company said.
The company said its radar tracking data helped to compute a miss distance of just 20 feet (6 meters), with a slight margin of error.
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The conjunction occurred in what LeoLabs called a “bad neighborhood.”
“This region has significant debris-generating potential in #LEO due to a mix of breakup events and abandoned derelict objects,” it tweeted, noting that the region is host to approximately 160 SL-8 rocket bodies deployed more than two decades ago.
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Between June and September of last year, the company highlighted that there were 1,400 high-PC conjunctions involving the rocket bodies alone.
“Why’s this a big deal? We’ve identified this kind of collision — between two massive derelict objects — as a ‘worst-case scenario’ because it’s largely out of our control and would likely result in a ripple effect of dangerous collisional encounters,” LeoLabs explained.
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The company said it was crucial to focus on both collision avoidance and debris mitigation and remediation to combat space debris.
The International Space Station has had to maneuver to avoid such debris, and a tiny object that is possibly a piece of orbital debris is thought to be responsible for a leak aboard a Soyuz spacecraft currently docked at the station.