It seems like we have missed another close encounter between two satellites. LeoLabs, a company that utilizes radar to manage satellites and debris in space, has previously announced that two old satellites rotating around Earth had a 1 in 100 chance of an almost frontal clash at 9.39 a.m. AEST on January 30th, with probable ravaging impacts.
LeoLabs predicted that the probes could pass within 15 to 30 meters (49 to 98 feet) from each other, and neither satellites could be programmed or transferred. Collisions in space can have a devastating effect and send high-speed waste all over the pace. This puts in danger other satellites, following launches, and more so manned space expeditions.
It Was a Tricky Situation
NASA always moves the International Space station (ISS) when the threat of clash is 1 in 100,000, and last year, the European Space Agency (ESA) had to transfer one of its probes when the chance of collision with a SpaceX satellite was determined at 1 in 50,000. Even so, the estimation increased to 1 in 1,000 when the US Air Force, which has perhaps the largest number of satellites in space, collected more information.
After the predictions announced by LeoLabs, other companies have started revealing similar concerns. However, the measurements based on the data collected are a bit more optimistic, and neither NASA nor the US Air Force issued any notice.
The first probe is the Infrared Astronomical Satellite (IRAS), a massive space telescope that weighs about a tonne and was launched in 1983. It completed its mission during that year and has flown in dormant mode ever since.
The second satellite is known as GGSE-4, and it is a formerly secret government probe launched back in 1967. It was a part of a big project that was supposed to capture radar emissions from the Soviet Union. Weighting at 83 kilograms (182 pounds), it is smaller than IRAS and has a weird shape. Both satellites belong to the United States.
After 24 hours following the initial announcement, LeoLabs tweeted, stating that it downgraded the possibility of a crash to 1 in 1,000 and adjusted the predicted flyby distance between the probes to 13 to 87 meters (42 to 285 feet). However, the safety net quickly vanished after the risk of collision was raised back to 1 in 100, and then at 1 in 20.
Fortunately, the two satellites seem to have missed one another, as LeoLabs announced it could not find any new space debris.
What Should We Do?
To avoid such collisions, it is best to start with creating better methods to track satellites, as well as space debris. Getting the junk from there is the most important next step, which, however, it can only be carried out if astronomers know for sure where the debris is.
Western Sydney University is currently working on biology-based cameras that are able to observe satellites during the day, enabling them to function when other telescopes cannot. These sensors can also see the probes when they pass in front of bright cosmic objects such as the Moon.