Space debris from a Russian anti-satellite missile test came within 47 feet of knocking out China’s Tsinghua science satellite this week, Beijing claims.
The near-miss between Tsinghua and the piece of debris, called 49863, occurred at 02:49 GMT on January 18, the China National Space Administration (CNSA) has said, based on tracking data.
The two objects passed each other at a relative speed of more than 11,700 miles per hour, according to CNSA.
Russia’s debris came from its 4,410-pound Cosmos 1408 satellite, which the country obliterated in November during its ‘anti-satellite missile test’.
Cosmos 1408 launched in 1982 and was deliberately destroyed by the Russians because it was no longer operational.
According to experts, the space debris from the collision over the Atlantic Ocean will cause havoc for spacecraft for years, if not decades.
Spacefaring nations now need to engage in serious action to clear Earth’s orbit of this so-called ‘space junk’ to prevent collisions, which could prove fatal if they involve manned space stations.
Tsinghua is China’s university-built research payload, launched into orbit in August 2020 aboard a Long March 2D rocket.
Liu Jing, a space debris expert and deputy director of CNSA’s Space Debris Monitoring and Application Center, told Global Times that actual collisions between the pair are likely in future.
Government branches and private companies track space debris using Earth-based radar, which can help satellite operators and government agencies avoid collisions.
‘Currently, they keep a safe distance but the chance for these two getting close in the future cannot be excluded,’ Jing said.
‘If there is we need to quickly notify our satellites and make some evasive manoeuvres in advance to avoid these debris. This is the most feasible method at present.’
According to CNSA, the distance between the two objects was getting closer each time they complete an orbit of Earth.
Fragments of space debris as small as a centimetre have the potential to completely destroy satellites because of the speed at which they travel.
According to NASA, there are about 23,000 pieces of debris larger than a softball orbiting the Earth.
There are half a million pieces of debris the size of a marble or larger, and approximately 100 million pieces of debris about 0.04 inches and larger.
There is even more smaller micrometer-sized debris, NASA claims.
ESA, meanwhile, estimates the total mass of all space objects in Earth orbit is more than 9,600 tonnes.
It estimates there have been more than 560 break-ups, explosions, collisions, or anomalous events resulting in fragmentation.