Russian and NASA Satellites Narrowly Miss In a “Too Close For Comfort” Flyby

In addition to the already considerable amount of dangerous debris in orbit, an event on Wednesday nearly produced even more of it.

Approximately 378 miles (608 kilometers) above Earth, the Russian Cosmos 2221 spacecraft and NASA’s functioning TIMED satellite threatened to collide.

The U.S.-based satellite-tracking company LeoLabs described the two big, immobile bits of metal as being “too close for comfort” after they passed each other at a fast speed of barely 20 meters.

According to LeoLabs, there would have been “an increased collision risk on a large portion of low-Earth orbit but especially on nearby lower orbits used by large constellations and human spaceflight” if the two satellites had collided. Put another way, the resulting debris would have posed a serious threat to constellations like SpaceX’s Starlink satellites, the International Space Station, and China’s space station.

In a social media post, Paul Byrne, an associate professor of earth, environmental, and planetary science at Washington University in St. Louis, wrote, “We just got lucky…” Had they collided, the amount of debris in low-Earth orbit could have increased by 50%. Instantaneously. This might translate to 7,500 more space debris pieces.

However, LeoLabs’ computations indicate that the number would only have been that high if the two items had collided head-on. It stated that it was more plausible that one of the objects’ solar arrays would have cut the main body of the other spacecraft. “In that case, one object would’ve been destroyed and the other would’ve been damaged,”  resulting in up to 2,500 pieces of dangerous debris that would have continued to cause issues for future satellites.

“This was their closest pass in the current predicted orbit determinations, as they are gradually moving apart in altitude,” NASA said, despite the fact that the two immobile spacecraft will approach one other again.

The near-collision that occurred on Wednesday serves as yet another reminder of the grave issue that space trash poses in low-Earth orbit. Although progress has been sluggish, several companies are working on ways to remove the debris, which is primarily made up of leftover rocket parts, crashed satellites, and other garbage.

Launched in 2001, NASA’s TIMED (short for Thermosphere Ionosphere Mesosphere Energetics and Dynamics) mission examines how human activity and solar radiation affect Earth’s mesosphere and lower thermosphere/ionosphere. Meanwhile, the Russian Cosmos 2221 defense satellite was launched in 1992.