80 milligrams. A bit more of a grain of sand. Still more than enough to damage a Russian satellite in orbit, as stated by Center for Space Standards & Innovation of Colorado Springs. The main factor is speed. An almost invisible debris hit the “Blits” satellite doing thousands of miles/hour. The energy release of the impact causes a shift in the satellite rotation and a change in the relative position of 120 meters.
The impact happened January, the 22nd. Today the Russian satellite is out-of-order and the researchers at CSS&I got a name to blame for it: the Chinese ASAT experiment of 2007, the 80 milligrams-killer was from the remains of “Fen Yung 1C“, a Chinese satellite destroyed after the end of its operative life. This sequence of events is useful to remind to all of us of a number of problems.
First, there are about 500,000 fragments about a half inch diameter orbiting Earth. And about a few hundred millions of little pieces, all of them ready to collide at high-speed with the next high-value satellite somebody will put on orbit.
Second, there are about 25,000 big-sized debris and an unknown number of dead satellites of all sizes. Some of this objects got radioactive material aboard. All of them are thoughtfully tracked by NASA, ESA and a number of other space-related agencies.
Third, year after year this problem is getting harder to solve. The number of loose objects grows and our need for more and more satellites do the same. At the same time heavier objects slowly decade from higher orbit level, increasing the risks of more collisions.
There’s no easy solution at hand. A lot of private companies and think-thank raised a number of issues about technical matters but no project is actually ready for a test, there is no money available at the moment to fund one or more prototypes. As always, it’s a matter of balancing costs for such operations and potential loss of valuable hardware due to collisions.
The basic idea is to push any little debris closer to the superior level of our atmosphere, in order to use attrition-generated heat to destroy it. That could work for almost all fragments, with a fair level of accuracy. For the biggest chunks of hardware and for dead satellites another solution has to be developed, maybe with the use of a reusable vehicle like the Boeing X-37, that will be able to recover and store inside its frame such objects.
The main question is still the same: who will pay for this kind of operations? We’re talking about billions of USD and operations with a high risk level. What if a private corporation, of course a big one, step in and set up a viable project?