China’s satellite Yunhai-1(02) collides with Russian rocket debris

The recent number of space collisions and close calls are a clear indication of how many objects, be it actually in-use satellites or even debris from rocket launches or old satellites, are actually in the orbit around the earth, and is increasing at an alarming rate. The breakup of the Yunhai-1(02) satellite is a prime example.

Initial reports of the crash

The disintegration of the Yunhai 1-02, a Chinese military satellite launched in September 2019, was detected in March by the US Space Force’s 18th Space Control Squadron. At the moment, it was unclear if the spacecraft had failed in some way — possibly a propulsion system explosion — or whether it had crashed with anything in orbit. The collision with the Chinese satellite was subsequently discovered to be a listed “object 48078.” Object 48078 was a tiny piece of debris from the Zenit-2 rocket that launched Russia’s Tselina-2 spy satellite in September 1996. It was likely a piece of trash between 4 inches and 20 inches (10 to 50 cm) broad. Object 48078 contains just one set of orbital data, despite the fact that eight pieces of debris coming from the rocket have been tracked throughout the years. As a result, it was determined that that specific piece of Russian satellite debris impacted with the satellite.

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Despite the damage, Yunhai 1-02 appears to have survived the catastrophic collision at a height of 485 miles (780 kilometers). Radio trackers have continued to pick up signals from the satellite, but it’s uncertain if Yunhai 1-02 is still capable of doing the task it was designed to accomplish. To date, 37 debris items created by the collision have been discovered, with many more possibly undiscovered.

Why is this incident of such importance?

The satellite will be used for “monitoring of the atmospheric, marine, and space environment, catastrophe prevention and mitigation, and scientific experiments,” according to the official launch statement by Chinese state media. However, some speculate that this is simply an official cover for something that China does not want to share. As a result, the actual ramifications of China’s loss of this satellite are yet unknown. The event is the first big verified orbital collision since Kosmos-2251, a derelict Russian military spacecraft, collided with Iridium 33, an active communications satellite, in February 2009. By October of the following year, 1,800 pieces of trackable debris had been formed as a result of the collision. The impact, along with another in 2007, boosted the quantity of large debris in low-Earth orbit by around 70%.

Other recent close calls of satellite collision in space

There have been several false alarms and close calls since then. Some prime examples are:-

  • In October, a dead Soviet satellite and a leftover Chinese rocket body flew passed each other in space after orbital models predicted they would collide.
  • A dead space telescope and an obsolete US Air Force satellite collided above Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania in January 2020, defying all odds.
  • The Starlink satellites  almost collided with the Tiangong Space Station that is currently undergoing in-orbit assembly, on two different occasions last year in 2021.(More on China’s accusations on SpaceX here.)
  • In the last week of January 2022, a Chinese spacecraft came dangerously close to colliding with debris caused by Russia’s catastrophic anti-satellite test in November.

Conclusion: Why is Increasing space junk becoming a major problem?

Although our present space debris situation is not serious, the Yunhai occurrence might serve as a warning flag. Nearly 130 million pieces of space debris have already encircled Earth, originating from abandoned satellites, spacecraft that have disintegrated, and other missions. That debris moves at around ten times the speed of a bullet, which is fast enough to cause catastrophic damage to critical equipment, regardless of how little the bits are. A spacecraft’s crew might be killed by such a strike.

The Kessler Syndrome is a phenomenon in which the amount of junk in orbit around Earth reaches a point where it just creates more and more space debris, causing big problems for satellites, astronauts, and mission planners. The current scenario strongly suggests that spaceflight in the future will be impacted very adversely if nothing is done to “clean up” the situation. If no dead satellites or old rocket remains are removed from orbit, experts predict more near-collisions like this.

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