The piece of orbital debris cited in news articles as being from the destroyed weather satellite has an “unchanged orbit,” indicating it never collided with anything, the official says.
The Air Force routinely notifies operators if their satellites appear to be too close to one another, or to debris, in an effort to reduce the chances of such an incident. American and European space agencies say as many as 400,000-500,000 objects are routinely orbiting Earth, many of them too small to detect.
Just such a piece of debris could be the culprit for the apparent break-up of the Blits spacecraft. Though the JSPOC tracked a piece of Fengyun debris near Blits, it is impossible to know with today's sensor capability whether something smaller, also perhaps from the weather satellite debris field, collided with Blits.
“No matter what, there was an external force, outside of the standard natural perturbations, that acted on the Blits satellite and changed its orbit and spin. The two possibilities are either it just broke up on its own, or it was hit by something else,” says Brian Weeden, a technical advisor for the Secure World Foundation.
The defense official says a collision is unlikely because such events at orbital speeds typically cause objects to shatter into a large field of debris.
Weeden, however, says that Blits's design, “essentially a bowling ball made of two outer halves and an inner sphere,” could prevent it from shattering into tiny pieces. “It all depends on the size of the impacting object, the composition of the two objects, and the relative speeds and angles of the impact . . . . It didn't have any fragile solar panels or other things that could have created debris,” Weeden says. “It is possible that Blits was struck by a piece of uncataloged debris that is not being tracked by the U.S. military.”
This scenario of a satellite seemingly damaged in orbit without a definitive cause is one that U.S. military leaders fear for their constellations. As U.S. forces have grown increasingly dependent on satellite-based services, from GPS to weather to imagery to missile-warning, commanders are more concerned about operating in a medium about which they have poor situational awareness (SSA). Such awareness is needed not only for debris mitigation, but also potentially to detect hostile actions in space.
Weeden notes that the JSPOC, the nerve center for the best SSA in the world, runs using 1980s-era computer technology that is, at best, stretched to its limits.
“Material, cultural and bureaucratic shackles are preventing the United States from developing the SSA capabilities it requires to meet its own national security needs and thereby contribute to the long-term sustainability of outer-space activities,” he writes in the report titled “Going Blind: Why America is on the Verge of Losing Its Situational Awareness in Space and What Can Be Done About It.”