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A dead Russian spacecraft almost collided with a NASA satellite. The crash could have sent 7,500 bits of debris rocketing around Earth.

Simulated image of a satellite collision in space
A simulated image of a satellite collision and the resulting debris.ESA / ID&Sense / ONiRiXEL, CC BY-SA 3.0 IGO
  • NASA's TIMED satellite narrowly avoided colliding with a dead Russian spacecraft this week.

  • In the worst-case scenario, the collision could have ejected up to 7,500 bits of debris into orbit.

  • Satellite collisions are becoming more likely as the amount of space junk in low-Earth orbit grows.

Two satellites nearly collided in space on Wednesday in a harrowing encounter that LeoLabs, a satellite-tracking company, called "too close for comfort."

NASA's Thermosphere Ionosphere Mesosphere Energetics and Dynamics, or TIMED, satellite passed by Russia's inoperative Cosmos 2221 spacecraft with less than 65 feet of clearance. That's shorter than the length of a tennis court.

These satellites are non-maneuverable, meaning neither the US nor Russia have control over where they go.

If they had collided, it could have decimated both satellites, blasting up to 7,500 fragments of space junk into Earth's orbit that would now be zooming around our planet at thousands of miles an hour, faster than bullets.

The fragments wouldn't have posed a danger to life on Earth because any debris that penetrated our atmosphere would have burned up during free fall.

But it would have threatened future spaceflight and astronaut lives since the resulting debris could have made navigating low-Earth orbit far more treacherous.

"There are 'bad neighborhoods' where these massive derelicts are accumulating preferentially," Darren McKnight, LeoLabs' senior technical fellow, told Business Insider in an email.

Avoiding collisions in these congested areas is becoming increasingly difficult as the number of objects in Earth's orbit grows yearly.

Earth's orbit is getting overcrowded

Graph of spatial density of non-operational objects in low-Earth orbit.
This graph shows the spatial density of non-operational objects in low-Earth orbit. The spikes correspond to altitudes most congested with space junk.LeoLabs

Near collisions between large space objects like this are rare, but it only takes one to completely change the landscape of Earth's orbit and endanger countless other satellites, space telescopes, and even the International Space Station, or ISS.

Two satellite collisions in 2007 and 2009 increased the concentration of large debris in low-Earth orbit by roughly 70%.

And with the advent of mega-constellations of internet satellites, such as SpaceX's Starlink and Amazon's Kuiper, the number of objects in low-Earth orbit is growing more and more each year, increasing the risk of collisions.

side-by-side images of objects in LEO
Left to right: Low-Earth orbit is the most concentrated area for orbital debris but the total object population of Earth's orbit extends far beyond this inner region.NASA ODPO

In 2007, scientists estimated there were about 10,000 low-Earth objects. By 2021, that number had doubled. And most of it isn't even useful — it's space junk.

Roughly 70% of low-Earth objects are pieces of debris from damaged or defunct rockets, satellites, and nonoperational payloads, according to LeoLabs.

That's just what's cataloged, though.

The European Space Agency estimates that nearly 1 million bits of debris measuring between one and 10 centimeters are circling Earth, with another 130 million bits even smaller than that.

Space junk is so pervasive the ISS sometimes has to navigate around it.

hole in Endeavor space shuttle caused by debris
Space debris hit the space shuttle Endeavour's radiator, creating this hole found after one of its missions. The entry hole is about 0.25 inches wide, and the exit hole is twice as large.NASA

In March 2023, the ISS dodged objects twice in one month, once to avoid a collision with a satellite and again to maneuver around debris a few days later.

Even the tiniest pieces of debris can damage the space station and endanger astronauts, though no astronaut has lost their life due to space debris — yet.

The race to clean up space

The consequences of space debris are very real, so much so that the worst-case scenario has a name: Kessler syndrome.

In this scenario, a collision sets off a chain reaction, generating a catastrophic domino effect that produces so much space debris that no spacecraft can safely leave Earth for hundreds or thousands of years.

Illustration of space junk floating around Earth
An artist's illustration of space junk circling in low-Earth orbit.dottedhippo / Getty Images

But preventing collisions today can offset a possible Kessler-syndrome scenario in the future. And some governments and private companies have begun to address the problem.

New space-industry norms and policies in some countries are prompting satellite operators to design their spacecraft to self-destruct when they die by pushing themselves into a free fall that causes them to burn up in the atmosphere.

Last year, the FCC — the US agency that regulates most communications satellites — took its first-ever enforcement action related to space debris when it fined Dish Network $150,000 for failing to properly dispose of a retired satellite.

Some governments seem less concerned. Both India and Russia have tested anti-satellite missiles by destroying their own satellites in orbit, creating new clouds of debris.

As for old, inoperable spacecraft roaming loose in orbit, such as Cosmos 2221, NASA is outsourcing research and development to private companies to collect them.

In September 2023, the space agency awarded $850,000 to TransAstra for their concept of "FlyTrap" space-debris capture bags — basically, giant high-tech trash bags to scoop up a lot of space junk.

TransAstra space debris capture tech
TransAstra's capture bags could help solve Earth's space-debris problem.TransAstra

Outside the US, other companies are coming up with their own innovative disposal solutions. The Japanese company Astroscale designed a spacecraft with a magnetic plate that can attach to dead satellites and pull them into free fall.

But these space clean-up technologies are still in testing. The European Space Agency plans to be the first to remove a piece of debris from Earth's orbit with its ClearSpace-1 mission, scheduled to launch in 2026.

Meanwhile, LeoLabs hopes that its precision data on objects in orbit will help satellite operators foresee and avoid near collisions like the one that happened Wednesday.

Read the original article on Business Insider