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Space Invader: NASA Satellite Narrowly Avoids Catastrophic Collision With Russian Spacecraft

NASA Spacecraft Avoids Collision With Defunct Russian Satellite
Source: NASA

NASA's Thermosphere Ionosphere Mesosphere Energetics and Dynamics Mission (TIMED) spacecraft was threatened by the Russian Cosmos 2221.

Mar. 10 2024, Published 11:04 a.m. ET

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A potentially disastrous scenario unfolded in space recently as a NASA spacecraft narrowly avoided a collision with a defunct Russian satellite, Cosmos 2221.

The threat became apparent when NASA's spacecraft Thermosphere Ionosphere Mesosphere Energetics and Dynamics Mission, or TIMED, found itself on a collision course with the inactive Russian satellite.

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NASA expressed concerns over the possibility of a collision, citing the potential for “significant debris generation.”

LiveScience.com reported that the collision between the two non-maneuverable satellites could have led to the destruction of NASA's active spacecraft, triggering a catastrophic chain reaction involving other orbiting objects.

NASA emphasized the critical nature of the TIMED mission, which focuses on studying the impact of solar activity and human influence on Earth's mesosphere and lower thermosphere/ionosphere.

The TIMED spacecraft, launched in 2001, faced off against the Cosmos 2221 satellite, launched in November 1992, highlighting the increasing congestion in Earth's orbit due to the proliferation of satellites and space-related activities by various countries.

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Despite NASA's tracking efforts, which monitor approximately 30,000 large debris pieces in space, there remains a substantial amount of smaller space junk that poses a significant threat to operational satellites and the International Space Station (ISS).

This threat was vividly demonstrated in 2022 when the ISS had to maneuver to avoid debris resulting from a Russian anti-satellite test.

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Recognizing the pressing need to address space debris, scientists are exploring innovative solutions. Initiatives range from laser-based methods proposed by Australian researchers to the European Space Agency's plan to deploy a four-armed robot designed to capture and remove space junk.

The severity of the space debris issue was underscored by researchers' warnings of potential catastrophic collisions above Earth's atmosphere. As discussions around the protection of Earth from future space-related threats intensify, calls for a legally binding treaty echo sentiments similar to those addressing ocean pollution.

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Dr. Imogen Napper, a research fellow at the University of Plymouth, drew parallels between the challenges of plastic pollution in oceans and the accumulation of space debris, advocating for collaborative global action to avert potential disasters.

Coinciding with global efforts to safeguard the oceans, nearly 200 countries have committed to a treaty to protect marine environments from pollution, emphasizing the need for coordinated action in addressing planetary challenges.

Meanwhile, the exponential growth of satellites, with projections estimating over 60,000 by 2030, coupled with the vast number of untracked satellite fragments in orbit, raises concerns about the future usability of Earth's orbit.

Researchers emphasize the importance of interdisciplinary collaboration to develop effective solutions, drawing parallels between environmental challenges in oceans and those in space.

Heather Koldewey, Senior Marine Technical Advisor at the Zoological Society of London, emphasized the need to integrate scientific insights into management and policy decisions to tackle planetary issues effectively.

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