2020 is the year that keeps on giving. If you enjoyed the almost satellite collision of January 29, you’re going to love the higher stakes collision that may take place soon.
On Friday, October 16, at 00:56 UTC (Thursday 15, 20:56 ET), two satellites with a combined mass of almost three tons will fly within 12 meters (39 feet) of each other with a chance of colliding higher than one-in-ten, according to space debris tracking company LeoLabs. This dangerous flyby will take place over the Weddell Sea in Antarctica at an altitude of 991 kilometers (616 miles).
The two objects in question are quintessential space junk. One is the rocket stage of the first Chang Zheng (Long March) 4C rocket that was launched back in 1999 and has a weight of about 2 tons. The other is a defunct Russian military satellite from the Parus fleet used for communication and navigation, weighing 825 kilograms (1,819 pounds).
The two are moving towards each other at 14.7 kilometers (9.1 miles) per second. That is about 12 times faster than a bullet but with the mass of a car. The possibility of collision is complicated by the fact that the Parus has a boom that extends for 17 meters (56 feet), which may or may not hit the rocket piece, even if the main bodies of the satellites don’t collide. Since the two bodies are just relics, there’s no way to move them out of each other’s way.
Spacecrafts take evasive maneuvers even when they are tens of kilometers from each other, just to be on the safe side. The International Space Station (ISS) had to shift orbit three times in 2020 and experienced three high-concern conjunctions with other material in orbit. Space agencies continue to push for new commercial satellites to have end-of-life destruction plans as well as the ability to track them all the way back into the atmosphere, but this hasn't become the norm. Earlier this year, another part of a Chinese rocket fell into the village of Mahounou in Côte d'Ivoire, missing New York by just 15 minutes.
This current collision doesn’t pose an immediate risk to humans but it gets us closer to the Kessler Syndrome. This is a theoretical scenario where the number of collisions grows exponentially, as one collision generates hundreds of pieces of debris that collide with other satellites and so on. This scenario could render entire regions of near-Earth space a danger to pass through.