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Russian Satellite Breakup Creates New Space Debris Field

How a Single Satellite Incident Illuminates the Growing Orbital Debris Crisis

A Russian satellite has broken up and created more space junk. The Resurs-P1, an Earth observation satellite broke apart on June 26, 2024, and a new cloud of orbital debris is now out there, threatening other spacecraft and the growing space junk problem. The incident even led to Nasa telling the astronauts aboard the International Space Station to take cover in their spacecraft for about an hour.

During that time Mission Control was tracking the debris. Once they were sure it was safe they gave the crew the all-clear to exit their shelters and get back to normal operations.

Russian Satellite Breakup

The Russian satellite breakup was first reported by LeoLabs, a private space situational awareness company. The event occurred between 13:05 UTC June 26 and 00:51 UTC June 27 when the Resurs-P1 satellite was at an altitude of about 355 km.

US Space Command has confirmed the Russian satellite breakup, initially saying over 100 pieces of trackable debris were created. But LeoLabs’ analysis suggests the number could be much higher:

“We estimate the event created at least ~250 fragments and the cloud extended to at least 500 km,” said LeoLabs in a LinkedIn post.

This is a lot of new space junk from the Russian satellite breakup and a risk to operational satellites and spacecraft in low Earth orbit (LEO).

Russian satellite breaks up in low Earth orbit forcing ISS astronauts to take shelter(Video Credit: Sky News Austrailia

What caused the Russian Satellite Breakup

The exact cause of the Resurs-P1 breakup is still under investigation but LeoLabs’ preliminary assessment suggests a “low intensity explosion” is the most likely scenario. This was determined using LeoLabs’ proprietary breakup assessment tool which looks at fragment size distribution, cloud symmetry and energetics.

Two possible causes of the Russian satellite breakup:

  1. Impact with a small, previously uncatalogued piece of space debris
  2. Internal structural failure leading to a propulsion system malfunction

Note that the analysis rules out an intentional anti-satellite weapons test like the Cosmos 1408 incident in November 2021.

State of the Russian Satellite

Despite the breakup, the main body of the Resurs-P1 satellite appears to be still intact. Sybilla Technologies, a Polish space situational awareness company, reported that optical observations show the satellite is still in orbit and rotating with a period of 2-3 seconds.

Interesting that pre-breakup images from HEO, an Australian company, show that the solar panels on Resurs-P1 and two follow-on satellites (P2 and P3) never deployed. Not sure if this is related to the recent Russian satellite breakup but it highlights the complexity and vulnerabilities of satellite systems.

Implications Of Orbital Operations

The new space debris from the Resurs-P1 incident has implications for other objects in orbit. The debris cloud poses a risk to:

  • CubeSats and other small satellites
  • Earth observation and scientific research satellites
  • Human spaceflight missions like the International Space Station and China’s Tiangong space station

LeoLabs says “any spacecraft operating up to 500 km will be affected by the fragments from this event”. The debris cloud will be a hazard for weeks to months but since the event is in a low orbit, atmospheric drag will eventually cause the fragments to decay and reenter the Earth’s atmosphere.

The Space Debris Crisis

The Resurs-P1 incident is a stark reminder of the space debris problem. As of June 2024, the European Space Agency (ESA) estimates that there is:

  • Over 12,400 tons of artificial objects
  • Up to 36,500 objects larger than 10 cm (about 4 inches) that have been cataloged
  • 130 million objects between 1 cm and 10 cm in size

These numbers show the increasing crowding in the Earth’s orbit, a trend that has accelerated with the growth of the commercial space industry and the launch of large satellite constellations.

Space Debris Mitigation and Management

The incident highlights the need for space debris mitigation. Space agencies and private companies are working on:

  1. Tracking and monitoring of space debris
  2. Active debris removal technologies
  3. End-of-life protocols for satellites (controlled reentry or “graveyard” orbits)
  4. International cooperation and policy to ensure responsible space operations

But removing small, fast moving objects from orbit is a big technical challenge. There are so many pieces and they are so spread out it’s a big problem to clean up.

Legal and Liability

The Resurs-P1 breakup also brings up the question of liability for damage caused by space debris. The United Nations’ Liability Convention (1972) covers this:

  • A launching state is liable for damage to the surface of the Earth or to aircraft in flight.
  • In space, liability is based on fault.

As the number of objects in orbit grows so does the chance of collisions and new space debris. This changing environment may require updates to international space law and liability.

Future and Ongoing Risks

The space debris situation is going to be a problem for a long time to come. LeoLabs says there are over 2,500 long lived intact derelict hardware in orbit that could suffer a fate like Resurs-P1.

While the risk of being hit by falling space debris on Earth is extremely low (less than 1 in 100 billion, according to ESA), it’s getting slightly higher as more objects are in orbit. But more importantly, the risk to operational satellites and future space missions is growing.

As the industry grows and new tech emerges, dealing with the space debris problem will require international cooperation, innovation and sustainable operations. Resurs-P1 is a timely wake up call to be vigilant and proactive in protecting our busy orbit.

Selig Amoak
Selig Amoak
Selig is a passionate space enthusiast and advocate. He has been fascinated by space since he was a child, and his passion has only grown over the years. Selig is particularly interested in the exploration of Mars and the search for life beyond Earth. Selig is also a strong believer in the importance of space education and outreach. He is currently a student at the University of Mines and Technology, and he is excited to use his skills and knowledge to contribute to the space education community.
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