Near miss! NASA satellite, dead Russian spacecraft zoom past each other in orbit

illustration of a spacecraft orbiting earth
Artist’s impression of NASA's TIMED spacecraft in orbit, scanning Earth. (Image credit: Johns Hopkins APL/Steve Gribben)

A NASA satellite almost got clobbered high above Earth this morning (Feb. 28).

At 1:34 a.m. EST (0634 GMT), according to agency officials, the dead Russian spy satellite Cosmos 2221 zoomed uncomfortably close to a NASA craft dubbed TIMED that has been studying Earth's atmosphere since 2001.

"While the two non-maneuverable satellites will approach each other again, this was their closest pass in the current predicted orbit determinations, as they are gradually moving apart in altitude," NASA officials wrote in an update today.

That update didn't report just how close the encounter was — but satellite-monitoring company LeoLabs gave us the numbers, and they are sobering. The two spacecraft, which are orbiting at an altitude of about 378 miles (608 kilometers), missed each other by less than 65 feet (20 meters).

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Such near misses are becoming more and more common as Earth orbit gets increasingly crowded. 

According to the European Space Agency, there are about 11,500 satellites zooming around Earth at the moment, yet only 9,000 of them remain operational. But that's just the tip of the orbital iceberg. About 36,500 pieces of debris at least 4 inches (10 centimeters) wide cruise around our planet, as do more than 130 million others with a diameter of 1 millimeter or more.

Even such tiny shards can cause serious damage to a satellite, considering how fast things move in Earth orbit. For example, 250 miles (400 km) up — the average altitude of the International Space Station — objects are zipping along at about 17,500 mph (28,160 kph).

The TIMED satellite's name is short for "Thermosphere Ionosphere Mesosphere Energetics and Dynamics." 

That moniker gives you a pretty good idea of its mission; the spacecraft "studies the influence of the sun and of human activity on Earth's mesosphere and lower thermosphere/ionosphere," NASA officials wrote in today's update. "The region is a gateway between Earth and space, where the sun's energy is first deposited into Earth's environment."

Cosmos 2221 was a Russian ELINT (electronic and signals intelligence) satellite, according to NASA. The 4,400-pound (2,000 kilograms) spacecraft launched in November 1992.

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Mike Wall
Senior Space Writer

Michael Wall is a Senior Space Writer with Space.com and joined the team in 2010. He primarily covers exoplanets, spaceflight and military space, but has been known to dabble in the space art beat. His book about the search for alien life, "Out There," was published on Nov. 13, 2018. Before becoming a science writer, Michael worked as a herpetologist and wildlife biologist. He has a Ph.D. in evolutionary biology from the University of Sydney, Australia, a bachelor's degree from the University of Arizona, and a graduate certificate in science writing from the University of California, Santa Cruz. To find out what his latest project is, you can follow Michael on Twitter.

  • Meteoric Marmot
    Since neither satellite has maneuvering capability, the depiction of the Russian satellite as the "bad guy" is highly prejudicial. I fault both nations for failing to de-orbit these birds before they lost maneuverability.
    Reply
  • billslugg
    The Russian satellite is defunct and is considered space junk.
    The US satellite is operational.

    https://science.nasa.gov/mission/timed
    Reply
  • Meteoric Marmot
    It's not relevant that it is still operational. It cannot maneuver and therefore is a danger to everything else in a similar orbit. It should have been de-orbited before it ran out of fuel regardless of operational status. SpaceX regularly deorbits birds because they're running out of fuel, even though they're still functioning.
    Reply
  • Unclear Engineer
    So what is the RELATIVE speed between these two objects at the point of their closest proximity?
    Reply
  • billslugg
    Meteoric Marmot said:
    It's not relevant that it is still operational. It cannot maneuver ..
    I cannot find any references to TIMED being non-maneuverable. All NASA websites show it as operational. A satellite can't be operational if it can't orient itself.

    We now deorbit satellites, but when these two were launched in 1997 and 2001 that was not the protocol.

    As for the reference to being "clobbered", it is only because it is written from someone based in the US. If based in Russia it would say the Russian satellite got clobbered. Exactly the same, just two different views.
    Reply
  • Meteoric Marmot
    billslugg said:
    I cannot find any references to TIMED being non-maneuverable. All NASA websites show it as operational. A satellite can't be operational if it can't orient itself.

    We now deorbit satellites, but when these two were launched in 1997 and 2001 that was not the protocol.

    As for the reference to being "clobbered", it is only because it is written from someone based in the US. If based in Russia it would say the Russian satellite got clobbered. Exactly the same, just two different views.

    Rotational maneuvering is often accomplished using reaction wheels that are powered by the bird's solar panels and so don't run out of power until the panels die. While these can be used to keep antennas aligned properly, they cannot be used to adjust the orbit.

    Satellites can still be operational without any maneuvering capability. They may lose some capabilities (high speed communication being the most critical), but they can often still be useful for some parts of their original mission. TESS is a prime example.

    The Space.com article quotes NASA:

    ""While the two non-maneuverable satellites will approach each other again, this was their closest pass in the current predicted orbit determinations, as they are gradually moving apart in altitude," NASA officials wrote..."

    The article may be incorrect, but it is what I based my comments on.

    It wasn't the protocol, but it should have been. From a "who to blame for a collision" standpoint, both nations are equally to blame.

    I realize that painting the Russian object as the aggressor is simply a geopolitical affectation, but I'd prefer if Space.com would avoid such characterizations.
    Reply
  • Unclear Engineer
    From that other space website:

    "In a brief statement March 1, NASA announced it was ending the On-Orbit Servicing, Assembly and Manufacturing (OSAM) 1 mission. OSAM-1 was being developed to refuel the Landsat 7 spacecraft . . . due to continued technical, cost, and schedule challenges, and a broader community evolution away from refueling unprepared spacecraft, which has led to a lack of a committed partner."

    I am wondering how long it will be before SpaceX has some sort of refueling service technology for its constellation of StarLink satellites. Something like a StarShip tanker could provide enough fuel in orbit to make a long lived "gas station" - - provided it doesn't have a high probability of getting clobbered by some other dead satellite. I guess it would have the fuel to "dodge", but it would take a significant amount to move such a big craft.
    Reply