The recent collision involving an active U.S. commercial Iridium satellite and an inactive Russian Cosmos 2251 satellite in low Earth orbit has demonstrated an urgent need to establish a civil space traffic control system.
A U.S.-operated Iridium satellite -- one of a 66-member constellation of communications satellites -- and a Russian satellite designated Cosmos 2251 collided on February 10.
Both were completely destroyed, producing two large debris clouds. According to information from the U.S. Air Force’s Space Surveillance Network, over 500 pieces from the Cosmos satellite and 194 pieces from the Iridium satellite were now being tracked in two separate debris clouds.
Investigations are underway regarding the events leading up to the collision of the two spacecraft – with details still forthcoming -- yet the implications of the incident are in need of immediate discussion.
“Unfortunately, it appears that there was data warning about the possibility of this collision beforehand,” noted Brian Weeden, Technical Consultant for Secure World Foundation. “However, it must be stressed that close approaches between satellites somewhere in Earth orbit occurs on almost a weekly basis…and until this event, have never before resulted in an actual collision.”
Weeden noted that in every case it is impossible to give a definite answer on whether or not two objects will actually collide, only probabilities and potential risks.
“Getting the right information to the right authorities in time to make the right avoidance maneuver decision is a very complicated process that doesn't entirely exist yet,” Weeden said. “The Secure World Foundation is working with many other organizations around the world to try and develop this process.”
That process involves the creation of a space traffic control system.
Increasingly congested environment
“This collision underscores in a dramatic way the importance of instituting an international civil space situational awareness (SSA) system as soon as possible,” said Dr. Ray Williamson Executive Director of Secure World Foundation.
Williamson said that such a civil SSA system could have been used to warn the Iridium operations managers of the danger of collision and allow them to take evasive action. “In the absence of reliable ways to clear debris from orbit, it will be increasingly important to follow all active satellites to prevent future preventable collisions,” he added.
Williamson said that the satellite collision has been spotlighted in a statement of the United States, delivered during the 46th Session of the Scientific and Technical Subcommittee of the United Nations Committee on the Peaceful Uses of Outer Space (COPUOS) being held in Vienna.
That COPUOS statement explains: “Since space is becoming an increasingly congested environment, heightened space situational awareness as well as international cooperation between governments and industry is critical in the future.”
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