Russian Satellite Breakup Creates Debris in Low Earth Orbit

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By Lydia Amazouz Published on June 28, 2024 07:30
Russian Satellite Breakup Creates Debris In Low Earth Orbit

A defunct Russian satellite broke apart in low Earth orbit on June 26, generating over 100 pieces of trackable debris and prompting astronauts on the International Space Station (ISS) to temporarily take shelter.

This incident has raised concerns about the growing problem of space debris and its implications for the safety of space operations.

Details of the Incident

The satellite, identified as Resurs P1, experienced a breakup event around noon Eastern time, according to U.S. Space Command (USSPACECOM). The exact cause of the breakup remains unknown, but initial speculation suggests potential internal failure or collision with an untracked object. USSPACECOM reported, “USSPACECOM has observed no immediate threats and is continuing to conduct routine conjunction assessments to support the safety and sustainability of the space domain.”

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LeoLabs, a space-tracking firm, was among the first to report the incident, estimating that the number of debris pieces exceeded 180. LeoLabs stated on social media, “Due to the low orbit of this debris cloud, we estimate it’ll be weeks to months before the hazard has passed.”

Impact on the International Space Station

The debris created by the breakup posed a temporary risk to the ISS, prompting NASA to instruct the crew to take shelter in their spacecraft as a precautionary measure. The six American astronauts, along with Russian cosmonauts aboard the station, followed standard safety protocols.

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NASA's statement clarified the situation: “Beginning around 8:45 p.m. EDT on Wednesday, June 26 NASA instructed crews aboard the space station to shelter in their respective spacecraft as a standard precautionary measure after it was informed of a satellite break-up at an altitude near the station’s earlier Wednesday.” Mission control continued to monitor the debris' trajectory and cleared the crew to resume normal operations after about an hour of observation, ensuring that there was no immediate threat to the ISS.

Background on Resurs P1

Resurs P1 was an Earth observation satellite launched by Russia in 2013. Decommissioned in late 2021 due to onboard equipment failures, the satellite had been gradually descending and was expected to reenter the atmosphere before the end of the year.

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The satellite, which weighed approximately 6,000 kilograms, adds to the significant issue of space debris in low Earth orbit following its breakup. Roscosmos, the Russian space agency, has not responded to requests for comment or acknowledged the event publicly on its social media channels.

Potential Causes of the Russian Satellite Breakup

While the exact cause of the breakup is undetermined, experts have proposed several possibilities. One leading theory is that Resurs P1 was not properly passivated at the end of its mission, leaving residual energy sources such as batteries or fuel tanks that could have led to the breakup. Jeff Foust of SpaceNews explains, “Passivation involves removing sources of energy, such as draining batteries and venting tanks, that have been linked to past satellite breakups.” Another possibility is that the satellite was struck by an untracked piece of debris.

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Speculation about a potential anti-satellite (ASAT) weapon test has also surfaced, drawing parallels to a 2021 incident where Russia tested an ASAT missile, creating extensive debris. However, there have been no official statements or observed activities indicating such a test in this case. Jonathan McDowell, a space tracker and Harvard astronomer, commented, “I find it hard to believe they would use such a big satellite as an ASAT target.”

Ongoing Monitoring and Future Concerns

USSPACECOM continues to monitor the debris, conducting routine conjunction assessments to ensure the safety of space operations. The incident underscores the growing concern over space debris and its implications for the sustainability of space activities. With over 25,000 pieces of debris larger than 10 centimeters in orbit, the risk of collisions and the cascading effect known as the Kessler syndrome remains a critical issue.

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Large debris-generating events in orbit, although rare, pose a significant threat as space becomes increasingly crowded with satellite networks vital to everyday life on Earth, from broadband internet and communications to basic navigation services. The need for effective space traffic management and debris mitigation strategies is more pressing than ever to prevent such incidents from jeopardizing future space missions.

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An editor specializing in astronomy and space industry, passionate about uncovering the mysteries of the universe and the technological advances that propel space exploration.

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