"Unknown space object" crashes into a Chinese military satellite

"Unknown space object" crashes into a Chinese military satellite
"Unknown space object" crashes into a Chinese military satellite

A Chinese military satellite, damaged by an unknown object, is believed to be a "wreckage of a Russian missile" in the most serious orbital collision since 2009.

The collision illustrates the growing danger of abandoned spacecraft parts and other debris in Earth's orbit, where they can break functioning equipment, as well as the extreme difficulty of figuring out what is happening in Earth's orbit.

According to an investigation by Harvard astrophysicist and satellite tracker Jonathan McDowell, China's Yunhai 1-02 satellite likely crashed into a chunk of space debris earlier this year.

The wreck, McDowell said, was part of the Zenit 2 rocket that launched a spy satellite in 1996. According to a database entry McDowell found, part of the rocket was tagged with an unusual entry: "Satellite collision."

"This is a new kind of commentary - I have not seen such commentary on other satellites before," McDowell wrote.

Evidence remains circumstantial, but McDowell established that the two objects were in close proximity to each other earlier this year.

Surprisingly, the Yunhai satellite appears to have survived the impact and continues to transmit radio signals.

The more objects we send into orbit, the more likely such collisions become.

"Collisions are proportional to the square of the number of objects in orbit," McDowell says. "So if you have 10 times as many satellites, there will be 100 times more collisions. So as traffic density increases, collisions will go from being a minor issue to a major debris problem. It's just math."

In the worst case, a single collision can cause an effect that leads to an exponential series of collisions - a phenomenon known as "Kessler syndrome".

But for now, we can only hope that it will not come to that.

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