Chicago (IL) - For the first time ever, two big communication satellites have collided in orbit some 500 miles above the surface of the Earth over Siberia. NASA is reporting it will "take weeks to determine the full magnitude of the crash."
The two satellites were an Iridium commercial satellite launched in 1997, and a Russian satellite launched in 1993, which was believed to be nonfunctioning. According to Mark Matney, an orbital debris scientist at Johnson Space Center in Houston, TX, the Russian satellite was out of control. Matney and his team monitor the 9,831 pieces of manmade debris currently in orbit around the Earth, each at least four inches in diameter.
The Iridium craft weighed 1,235 pounds, and the Russian craft was nearly 2,000 pounds. So far, Matney's team is counting dozens of pieces, though he suspects by the time everything is accounted for it will be in the hundreds. And if pieces smaller than four inches were included the count would likely be in the thousands.
NASA has reported four previous in-orbit collisions, however those were considered minor and involved parts of spent rockets or small satellites.
The clutter in orbit around the Earth has accelerated in recent years. NASA says this is due primarily to "deliberate breakups of old satellites." The orbital debris field is so bad that it is currently the number one threat to the space shuttle in flight, surpassing even the dangers of liftoff and the return to Earth.
An Iridium spokeswoman stated that the company has spare satellites, and at the time of this writing it is unclear if there is/was any service outage.
Iridium satellites are unusual in that they move much faster as their orbits are much closer to the Earth compared to other communication satellites which are typically much further out.