Experts say there is a “very high risk” that two large space debris – a defunct satellite and an old rocket area – could collide on Thursday evening.
California-based Liolabs, a space debris monitoring company, says their modeling suggests the satellites could lose less than 82 feet from each other, but there is a 20 percent chance of a collision.
The combined weight of the two objects in low Earth orbit at an altitude of about 615 miles is about 2.8 metric tons, the company said.
Orbital debris is defined as any man-made object orbiting our planet that no longer performs a useful function. This includes inactive spacecraft, abandoned launch vehicle vehicle positions and other debris generated by space travel.
These bits of space debris travel at very high speeds — up to 18,000 miles per hour, or even faster than a bullet. This speed means that, despite their small size, they pose a significant risk to orbiters and astronauts in orbit.
To date, they have had some surprising conflicts in low Earth orbit (LEO.), But experts are increasingly concerned as the number of satellites and the amount of orbital debris grow.
In 1978, NASA scientist Donald J. Kessler proposed that the density of objects in Leo could become too large, that collisions between objects would create more space debris and a feedback loop of further collisions.
The hypothesis is that the now-known “Kessler Syndrome” will make it very difficult or impossible to make space travel in the coming decades because of the high risk of colliding with space debris.
Jonathan McDowell, an astronomer at the Harvard-Smithsonian Astronomical Center that monitors space activities, identified two space objects set for a close shave on Thursday. He said one was the Russian “Purus” navigation satellite launched in 1989 and the other was the Chinese Zhangjen-4C rocket launcher launched in 2009.
If there is any collision between the two objects they may separate and form small pieces in the process. NASA says there are billions of space debris smaller than a marble in the lower Earth’s orbit, and tens of thousands of pieces larger than a softball.
McDowell posted on Twitter that the chaos caused by the collision of the two objects was “very bad” and that most of the debris generated would remain in low Earth orbit for “decades”.