A defunct Russian satellite and a spent Chinese rocket just floating around high over Earth could smash into each other within a few days, potentially creating a big mess in orbit with potentially dire long-term consequences.
LeoLabs, which tracks space debris, put out the alert on Tuesday warning that the two large hunks of junk will come within 25 meters of each other and have up to a twenty percent chance of colliding Thursday evening.
That’s considered way too close for comfort by space standards. The two objects have a combined mass of 2,800 kilograms and if they were to smash into each other, the “conjunction” could create thousands of new pieces of space junk that would put actual functioning satellites at risk.
Astronomer Jonathan McDowell, who keeps a close eye on objects in orbit, identified the old crafts as the Russian Parus navigation satellite that launched in 1989 and a Chinese ChangZheng-4c rocket stage that’s been adrift since 2009.
McDowell noted on Twitter that the altitude where the objects are located is also frequented by “lots of large objects” and that a collision would be “very bad.”
There has been a growing concern among astronomers and others in the space community lately about the accelerating proliferation of space debris. The more objects there are orbiting Earth, the higher the risk of collisions. More collisions also increases the risk of future collisions further in a feedback loop that could end in a scenario known as “Kessler Syndrome,” in which access to space becomes too dangerous.
This could be jumping the gun a bit, but with thousands of satellites headed to orbit as part of SpaceX’s Starlink and other planned mega-constellations, this week’s alert could be something that becomes routine in the not too distant future.