A Chinese Satellite Got Hit by Space Junk From Old Russian Rocket

The collision in March was likely caused by debris from a Russian rocket launched in 1996.
Ameya Paleja
Satellites and crewed missions are at risk from space junk.Petrovich9/iStock

Earlier in March this year, the 18 Space Control Squadron (18SPCS), a body that detects, tracks, and identifies artificial objects in Earth's orbit reported that the Chinese satellite, Yunhai 1-02 had broken up in space and it was tracking 21 pieces of the debris. Astronomer Jonathan McDowell recently came across the likely cause of the incident, debris from a Russian rocket launched in 1996. 

The European Space Agency actually has a Space Debris Office in Darmstadt, Germany that keeps track of the trash objects that are orbiting around our planet. According to their latest numbers, there have been 570 incidents of breakups, explosions, and collisions in space that have resulted in debris formation and there are likely to be 34,000 pieces of space trash that are at least 3.9 inches (10 cm) in size or bigger. While Space Surveillance Agencies catalog and track about 29,110 debris objects in space, this is just a small fraction of the total number of debris pieces in the Earth's orbit. Statistical models suggest that their number would be around 128 million with sizes ranging from 0.03 inches (1 mm) to 3.9 inches (10 cm) and beyond. 

Before we begin leisure trips into space, the Earth's orbit is filled with trash that is not only ugly to look at but can even be dangerous. SpaceX CEO, Elon Musk has also pondered if his two-stage megarocket, Starship, could be commissioned to chomp off space debris, during its other missions, in a bid to reduce the outdoor mess we have created. 

In April, we reported how China had launched a robot prototype that would collect space debris with a giant net. Just days before this, China's satellite, Yunhai 1-02 suffered damage because of the debris. While the cause of the impact or its result was still not clear, Jonathan McDowell, an astrophysicist at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics in Cambridge, Massachusetts came across some curious new entries in the Space-Track catalog. 

Object 48078, 1996-051Q: "Collided with satellite". In a Twitter thread, McDowell first gave some background about the object. 

There is just one entry for this object and so, McDowell dug further to see what satellite it had hit. His analysis revealed that the object came within a distance of 0.62 miles (1 km) with the Yunhai 1-02 on the day the satellite was reported to have broken up. Since the error of measurement for these records is 0.62 miles (1 km), McDowell concluded that it was this piece of debris from 1996 that broke up the Yunhai 1-02. The collision has created more debris, of which only 37 have been cataloged so far, McDowell tweeted. 

The astrophysicist also added that, since the event, the Yunhai1-02 has made orbital adjustments and is still under control. But other incidents might not get so lucky. Speaking to Space.com, he said, "if you have 10 times as many satellites, you're going to get 100 times as many collisions. So, as the traffic density goes up, collisions are going to go from being a minor constituent of the space junk problem to being the major constituent."