Feb 11 2009

Satellites Collide Over Antarctica

Published by at 4:01 pm under All General Discussions

Iridium Satellite

Not sure why it happened, but apparently a Russian and US Satellite collided over Antarctica on February 10th. Word is (no formal announcements) that the US satellite was an Iridium communications satellite in Low Earth Orbit, the Russian satellite was one of the vaguely named Cosmos satellites, which could have been one of Russia’s reconnaissance birds.

What is not known is how the collision happened. The US DoD tracks satellites very carefully and would have seen the potential collision coming well in advance. Word would have gone out to Russia very quickly given the close partnership the two countries have in space exploration.

It could be a simple random incident, since one of the Cosmos Satellites has recently begun to fall apart:

A Russian experimental satellite, equipped with a nuclear power supply, is coming apart up there. Cosmos 1818 went up in 1987, as part of a test program for a new satellite power program. After five months of tests, 1818 was shut down and moved to a higher orbit (800 kilometers up), where it would not be likely to fall to earth.

Now, with Cosmos 1818 starting to come apart (for reasons unknown), Russia is being criticized once more, for adding to the amount of space junk up there, and posing a risk to other satellites.

It looks like it could have been an avoidable event. But then again there are other scenarios much more disturbing to contemplate – especially with a new President in office. If not an accident, was this a message?

Update: According to this CBS News report I was right, debris took out the US satellite:

A commercial Iridium communications satellite collided with a Russian satellite or satellite fragment, Tuesday, creating a cloud of wreckage in low-Earth orbit, officials said Wednesday. 

Once source said U.S. Space Command was tracking about 280 pieces of debris, most of it from the defunct Russian satellite. A spokesman for U.S. Space Command was not aware of the incident but he said he would try to track down additional details. Calls to Iridium Satellite LLC were not immediately returned. 

Looks like a random act of chance and poor planning.

Addendum: Folks, this is an incredibly rare event – in fact it may be the first of its kind. The US is very diligent about designing satellites so they can be disposed of safely. It is a integral part of the mission design from the very start. Russia was not always so careful, and up and coming space nations probably have done little to ensure their efforts will not come raining down on humanity sometime later.

I do find it very interesting the collision took place over Antarctica – a basically unpopulated region of the world. On the flip side, polar orbiting satellite orbits become very dense over the poles, making collisions more likely than anywhere else.

It will be interesting to here if Space Com had any indication of a pending catastrophe. From the CBS News report they did not. Which is very odd indeed. It would seem some event had caused the Russian satellite or debris to move out of its orbit and cross the Iridium orbit. Will keep an eye on this one.

Update: Some updated news here. Looks like Space Com didn’t see it coming (somehow I am a bit skeptical on this point).

6 responses so far

6 Responses to “Satellites Collide Over Antarctica”

  1. kathie says:

    AJ, I read someplace that this is the 2nd Russian satellite that has broken up in space, both are worrisome in that the spread uranium in some way. I read about this a few days ago, before the collision.

  2. AJStrata says:


    The first linked article is probably the one you read, it discusses the previous satellite break up.

  3. kathie says:

    AJ I’m pretty sure they were talking about a second one, tho they didn’t have proof that the second had actually broken up.

  4. crosspatch says:

    The “thing” about these satellites is that they are in polar orbit. What that means is that all the orbits of all those objects come together at the poles.

    Ever seen a “figure 8” race? Now imagine lots of “figure 8” tracks that all share the same crossing point in the middle. That would be the polar region. Objects in equatorial orbits don’t have this problem, it is like a circular track where they are all going in the same direction. If someone is coming up behind you, one of you can just drift in or out a little on the track and the other can pass. In polar orbit, you are more likely to have a head-on collision with a vehicle coming at you as you both reach the pole.

  5. turboruss says:

    Acording to russian sources it was Cosmos 2251 (Strela-2) launched from Plesetsk on 15 jun 1993. Its looks like incident happened over Siberia.

  6. kathie says:

    AJ, from “StrategyPage”, I think this is where I learned about the first one.

    Rogue Russian Satellites Gone Wild

    February 13, 2009: Another collision in orbital space has destroyed an operational communications satellite (one of the Iridium birds, which supplies satellite phone service), at an altitude of about 770 kilometers over central Russia. The Iridium satellite was hit, on February 10th, by a dead Russian communications satellite (the one ton Cosmos 2251, equipped with a nuclear power supply, launched in 1993). The Russian bird could not be moved, nor could the Iridium (which, while active, was not equipped with thrusters for movement). The Iridium bird was one of sixty, so satellite phone services was not interrupted, because of the spare capacity in the system. The collision turned the two satellites into 600 bits of debris.
    The last time anything like this happened was in 1991, when a dead satellite ran into debris from another, and created more debris.