A large piece of space debris left over from a Chinese missile test six years ago, smashed into a Russian satellite earlier this year, knocking it off track, scientists said Saturday (March 9).
Analytical Graphics, Inc. (AGI) reported the collision appears to have happened earlier this year on Jan. 22, when a piece of China's Feng Yun 1C weather satellite, which was destroyed in a January 2007 anti-missile test, hit Russia's BLITS satellite.
Russian observers first reported Feb. 4 to the Center for Space Standards and Innovation (CSSI) that their satellite had suffered an unknown serious shift in orbit and spin.
CSSI, a branch of AGI, analyzed the catalogue of space objects and figured out which space debris could have caused the collision on that date.
In the controversial 2007 shootdown, the Chinese used a ground-based missile to target their aging weather satellite, the first known satellite-intercept test of its kind in over 20 years.
This is considered one of the worst space-debris events to occur, creating nearly 2,800 fragments, or more than 25 percent of all space debris at the time.
The test prompted formal protests from the United States and several U.S. allies including Canada and Australia.
The U.S. and former USSR had stopped such tests in the 1980s. Among the reasons for stopping was the fear that the resulting space debris would create a hazard to satellites in orbit.
Now those fears seem to have come to pass and space debris is a growing problem.
In 2011, the National Resource Council warned that small pieces of space debris are creating an increasing hazard in space that puts billion-dollar projects at risk. In June 2011, the International Space Station (ISS) itself suffered serious damage from orbiting space debris.
A large collision between an outdated, nonoperational Russian satellite and an American Iridium satellite occurred 490 miles over Siberia in 2009. Officials at the Johnson Space Center calculated that there were about 600 pieces of debris created by that crash.
At the time, NASA officials were confident that the ISS could avoid being hit by the resulting debris, a confidence which unfortunately proved to be misplaced.