March 25, 2013
Credit: NASA International Laser Ranging Service
Amy Butler Washington
Debate continues about what caused the breakup of a Russian satellite in orbit, underscoring the need for improvements to the ability to track and identify objects in space.
Space has become more littered with debris since the 2007 China anti-satellite test that shattered a satellite target. And operators, including the U.S. national security establishment, fear just such an incident, in which a satellite is damaged in orbit but the cause is impossible to pinpoint due to insufficient space surveillance and tracking capabilities.
Russian scientists first detected a change in the Blits (Ball Lens In The Space) nanosatellite Feb. 4. It was launched in September 2009 from a Soyuz by the Federal Space Agency of Russia and used for precision laser-measurement experiments.
These scientists subsequently postulated that a close approach to a piece of orbital debris—left after China conducted an anti-satellite test using its own defunct Fengyun 1C satellite as a target in 2007—must have collided with the spacecraft.
But what the mainstream press has reported as a late-January collision between this debris and Russia's ball-shaped satellite never happened, according to U.S. defense officials.
“There is no conclusive evidence to support that a piece of a Chinese Fengyun-1C debris, or any other piece of tracked debris, was the cause of the event,” says Lt. Col. Monica Matoush, a Defense Department spokeswoman. The Joint Space Operations Center (JSPOC) maintains a catalog of 23,000 objects in orbit, including satellites and debris roughly 5 cm (2 in.) or larger. It “detected an event involving the Russian Blits satellite resulting in a single piece of debris in addition to the payload,” she says. The center is continuing to track the two objects.
A known and cataloged piece of debris from the destroyed Chinese weather satellite actually came 3.1 km (1.9 mi.) from the Blits satellite, three times the 1-km distance required for notification to an operator of a potential collision, a separate defense source adds, on the condition of anonymity because he has not been authorized to speak publicly about the matter.