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Space collision: Chinese satellite got whacked by hunk of Russian rocket in March

An artist's concept depicting the near-Earth orbital debris field, based on real data from the NASA Orbital Debris Program Office.
An artist's concept depicting the near-Earth orbital debris field, based on real data from the NASA Orbital Debris Program Office. (Image credit: NASA Goddard Space Flight Center)

Yunhai 1-02's wounds are not self-inflicted.

In March, the U.S. Space Force's 18th Space Control Squadron (18SPCS) reported the breakup of Yunhai 1-02, a Chinese military satellite that launched in September 2019. It was unclear at the time whether the spacecraft had suffered some sort of failure — an explosion in its propulsion system, perhaps — or if it had collided with something in orbit. 

We now know that the latter explanation is correct, thanks to some sleuthing by astrophysicist and satellite tracker Jonathan McDowell, who's based at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

Related: The worst space debris events of all time

On Saturday (Aug. 14), McDowell spotted an update in the Space-Track.org catalog, which the 18SPCS makes available to registered users. The update included "a note for object 48078, 1996-051Q: 'Collided with satellite.' This is a new kind of comment entry — haven't seen such a comment for any other satellites before," McDowell tweeted on Saturday.

He dove into the tracking data to learn more. McDowell found that Object 48078 is a small piece of space junk — likely a piece of debris between 4 inches and 20 inches wide (10 to 50 centimeters) — from the Zenit-2 rocket that launched Russia's Tselina-2 spy satellite in September 1996. Eight pieces of debris originating from that rocket have been tracked over the years, he said, but Object 48078 has just a single set of orbital data, which was collected in March of this year.

"I conclude that they probably only spotted it in the data after it collided with something, and that's why there's only one set of orbital data. So the collision probably happened shortly after the epoch of the orbit. What did it hit?" McDowell wrote in another Saturday tweet.

Yunhai 1-02, which broke up on March 18, was "the obvious candidate," he added — and the data showed that it was indeed the victim. Yunhai 1-02 and Object 48078 passed within 0.6 miles (1 kilometer) of each other — within the margin of error of the tracking system — at 3:41 a.m. EDT (0741 GMT) on March 18, "exactly when 18SPCS reports Yunhai broke up," McDowell wrote in another tweet

Thirty-seven debris objects spawned by the smashup have been detected to date, and there are likely others that remain untracked, he added

Despite the damage, Yunhai 1-02 apparently survived the violent encounter, which occurred at an altitude of 485 miles (780 kilometers). Amateur radio trackers have continued to detect signals from the satellite, McDowell said, though it's unclear if Yunhai 1-02 can still do the job it was built to perform (whatever that may be).

Space Junk Clean Up: 7 Wild Ways to Destroy Orbital Debris

McDowell described the incident as the first major confirmed orbital collision since February 2009, when the defunct Russian military spacecraft Kosmos-2251 slammed into Iridium 33, an operational communications satellite. That smashup generated a whopping 1,800 pieces of trackable debris by the following October. 

However, we may be entering an era of increasingly frequent space collisions — especially smashups like the Yunhai incident, in which a relatively small piece of debris wounds but doesn't kill a satellite. Humanity keeps launching more and more spacecraft, after all, at an ever-increasing pace.

"Collisions are proportional to the square of the number of things in orbit," McDowell told Space.com. "That is to say, 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. That's just math."

We may reach that point in just a few years, he added. 

The nightmare scenario that satellite operators and exploration advocates want to avoid is the Kessler syndrome — a cascading series of collisions that could clutter Earth orbit with so much debris that our use of, and travel through, the final frontier is significantly hampered. 

Our current space junk problem is not that severe, but the Yunhai event could be a warning sign of sorts. It's possible, McDowell said, that Object 48078 was knocked off the Zenit-2 rocket by a collision, so the March smashup may be part of a cascade.

"That's all very worrying and is an additional reason why you want to remove these big objects from orbit," McDowell told Space.com. "They can generate this other debris that's smaller." 

Small debris is tough to track, and there's already a lot of it up there. About 900,000 objects between 0.4 inches and 4 inches wide (1 to 10 cm) are whizzing around our planet, the European Space Agency estimates. And Earth orbit hosts 128 million pieces of junk 0.04 inches to 0.4 inches (1 mm to 1 cm) in diameter, according to ESA. 

Orbiting objects move so fast — about 17,150 mph (27,600 kph) at the altitude of the International Space Station, for example — that even tiny shards of debris can do serious damage to a satellite.

Mike Wall is the author of "Out There" (Grand Central Publishing, 2018; illustrated by Karl Tate), a book about the search for alien life. Follow him on Twitter @michaeldwall. Follow us on Twitter @Spacedotcom or Facebook. 

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Mike Wall

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.