Will Russia Kill the International Space Station ... By Accident?


On October 4, 1957, Russia became the first nation on earth to put an object in orbit around the earth, when it lofted the 58-cm diameter Sputnik satellite into low-earth orbit. 56 years later, Sputnik is kaput -- but Russia is still No. 1 ... in orbital space junk.

That's according to Russia's own Central Research Institute for Engineering, which put out a report over the weekend detailing the number of pieces of "orbital debris" that the leading spacefaring nations have thrown up there in the skies. Despite being now only the No. 3 nation on earth (behind the U.S. and China) in terms of how many satellites it has in orbit, Russia continues to lead the way in turning space into a big ol' floating junkyard. According to CRIE, there are 6,125 big hunks of space junk in orbit today that are attributable to Russian spacefaring activity. That's as compared to "only" 3,672 from China, and 4,627 from the U.S.

These pieces of debris are "softball-sized" or larger. According to NASA, there are about 500,000 pieces of "space junk" in orbit, once you scale down to items the size of marble -- about 5,500 tons of the stuff in total. And with the average piece of orbital debris traveling at upwards of 22,000 mph, even microscopic particles can do serious damage when they hit something -- so you definitely don't want to get hit by a marble, much less a softball.

Who's going to clean up this mess?
Russia's intergalactic litterbug tendencies are a primary reason why the U.S. Air Force is looking for a contractor to build a "space fence" to try and track all this stuff. Sometime in the next few months, USAF is supposed to choose between Lockheed Martin (NYSE: LMT  ) and Raytheon (NYSE: RTN  ) , and hire one of these companies to build a new tracking system for the purpose. (Longer-term solutions to actually clean up the mess, for example, by sending up robots to nudge the junk into terminal orbits where it can burn up in Earth's atmosphere, are farther out ).

Let's hope the Air Force decides quickly, because already, the orbital junkyard is becoming a big problem, and a hazard to the many countries, and companies, who have valuable assets in space. To cite just a few examples:

  • July 1996: In the first confirmed case of "death by space junk", a French Cerise satellite is struck and damaged by an orbiting Ariane third stage rocket -- also French.
  • February 2009: The U.S. Iridium 33 satellite, owned by sat-phone operator Iridium Communications (NASDAQ: IRDM  ) , gets hit by dead Russian military satellite Cosmos 2252. That collision in turn unleashed 2,000 new pieces  of orbital shrapnel -- a thousandfold increase.
  • January 2012: The International Space Station is forced to fire thrusters to dodge a piece of debris from China's Fengyun 1C satellite, which China had blown up five years earlier in an anti-satellite missile test. Since then, ISS has had to maneuver around pieces of Fengyun 1C several times more.
  • March 2012: Fears that a piece of debris from a Russian Cosmos satellite might strike the International Space Station force six crew members to man their escape capsules, in case they might have to abandon ship.
  • January 2013: A piece of the Chinese Fengyun 1C finally strikes home, slamming into Russia's small Ball Lens In The Space (BLITS) retroreflector satellite.
  • May 2013: A piece of a Soviet-era Tsyklon-3 launch vehicle took out Ecuador's only orbiting satellite, the NEE-1.
  • Earlier this year -- no one's quite sure when -- ISS astronauts noticed a 0.25 inch diameter "bullet hole" in the station's solar arrays. It was apparently caused by a microscopic piece of space junk, or perhaps a passing (naturally occurring) "micrometeoroid."

Whatever the actual cause of that last incident, it illustrated the fact that it's not just multi-million-dollar satellites that are put at risk by this growing problem of space junk. The ISS can bob, and the ISS can weave. But one big piece of orbital debris, traveling the wrong trajectory at the wrong speed and the wrong time, could render the entire $150 billion  International Space Station as kaput as Sputnik.

This is a problem we need to get fixed, and soon.

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