Nasa space junk and Russian satellite’s near collision was much closer than thought

Satellites may have been ‘less than 10 metres’ apart when they narrowly missed each other, new analysis shows

Vishwam Sankaran
Monday 22 April 2024 05:45 BST
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A Nasa spacecraft’s near collision with a Russian satellite in February could have been much more disastrous than previously thought.

Nasa’s Thermosphere Ionosphere Mesosphere Energetics and Dynamics Mission (Timed) spacecraft launched in 2001 was in danger of colliding with the Russian satellite Cosmos 2221 on 28 February.

Timed was studying how the sun and humans are changing the “least explored and understood region of Earth’s atmosphere – the mesosphere and lower thermosphere/ionosphere” while Cosmos 2221 was an unused Russian satellite launched in 1992.

The American space agency issued an urgent alert in February, warning that it was monitoring a “potential collision”.

Observers, including space data company Leolabs, described the near collision as “too close for comfort.”

This was because a crash may have created more than 7,000 fragments in space, likely increasing debris in low-Earth orbit by 50 per cent which could threaten more satellites.

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Even a single fragment from a satellite, travelling at such high speeds, could cause significant damage to functional satellites in orbit.

Currently, there are more than 36,000 pieces of such space junk in Earth orbit, including millions of tiny shards at least 1 mm across.

While humanity dodged the bullet with the US and Russian spacecraft missing each other, a new estimate reveals that the close shave could have been much closer, Nasa deputy administrator Pam Melroy said.

“We recently learned through analysis that the pass ended up being less than 10m [33ft] apart – within the hard-body parameters of both satellites,” Ms Melroy said at the 39th Space Symposium in Colorado Springs, according to

“Had the two satellites collided, we would have seen significant debris generation – tiny shards travelling tens of thousands of miles an hour, waiting to puncture a hole in another spacecraft, potentially putting human lives at risk.”

Following the incident, Ms Melroy said Nasa is pushing for an integrated “space sustainability strategy” which would measure and assess sustainability in Earth orbit.

“Space is busy – and only getting busier. If we want to make sure that critical parts of space are preserved so that our children and grandchildren can continue to use them for the benefit of humanity, the time to act is now,” Ms Melroy said.

“Nasa is making sure that we’re aligning our resources to support sustainable activity for us and for all,” she added.

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