China, U.S. Space Junk: Lingering leftovers

By | May 18, 2008

China US Space Junk Lingering leftovers

There are still bits and pieces of debris zipping through space from that USA 193 intercept back in February of this year, as well as China’s anti-satellite test back in January 2007.

According to space debris expert, T.S. Kelso and his CelesTrak satellite tracking software, some 15 pieces of the busted up USA 193 spysat are still flittering around up there. When the successful intercept was reported, estimates were that all pieces would reenter within 40 days.

A recent analysis shows the last piece of clutter will decay about 100 days post-intercept, Kelso told me.

To generate accurate whereabouts of Earth orbiting debris, experts use data in the form of what’s tagged as Two-Line Elements, or TLEs.

“We still don’t have any way to predict when the piece still identified as USA 193 will decay, since we have never received any TLEs for it. It’s almost as if that orbit was still classified, which seems a bit odd. You would think TLEs for all pieces would be released,” Kelso noted.

Kelso explained that, with fewer pieces of USA 193 speeding about the Earth, there are only a half dozen or so close approaches a week to other spacecraft. “So it would appear that this threat is diminishing.”

Meanwhile, to put that in a bit of perspective, the Chinese anti-satellite (ASAT) test back in January 2007 created so much heavenly havoc that there are 3,144 close approaches of leftover debris with other satellites over the next week, according to a recent analysis, Kelso said.

In a debris update, NASA information puts the known leftover flotsam from the USA 193 intercept at 12, as of May 12. Furthermore, a government estimate of the maximum lifetime of orbital debris from the intercept — made prior to the intercept — pegged the last piece of clutter to fall back to Earth this summer, longer than 100 days post-event.

Lastly, the number of debris still being tracked from the Chinese ASAT is about 2,700. Only 33 cataloged debris have reentered as of May 2nd, according to my government source. – livesci

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