Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Russians destroy Iridium satellite

On Tuesday, a Russian Cosmos satellite ran into an active Iridium communications satellite, at an altitude of 491 miles over northern Siberia. Both satellites were totally destroyed.

This is not a problem for geosynchronous satellites (22,000 miles up) because they stay in one place. But for LEO (low earth orbit) communications satellites — which provide lower latency and polar coverage — such risk has always been there.

Iridium Satellite LLC (successor to the bankrupt creator of the sat phone network) has some spares so presumably this will only shorten its lifespan slightly. Wikipedia reports that the last failure was July 2008, and that it had 7 spares after that. (As with anything else, take it with a grain of salt).

It's kinda strange how little coverage there is of such an unprecedented event. (Admittedly I’m more into satellite stories nowadays than I was a few years ago). There is nothing on the Iridium website. One story quotes “Nicholas Johnson, NASA's chief scientist for orbital debris,” but there nothing on the NASA website.

It looks like the story was broken by the CBS space “consultant,” who didn’t even put it up on his news page. ABC doesn’t seem to have a space reporter, and nothing is yet on the MSNBC space page.

One blogger ties the space disaster to the imminent bankruptcy of Sirius XM. Certainly both Sirius and Iridium (and Globalstar) have suffered from losses in space.

The Iridium satellite was operational at the time, but the Russian Cosmos satellite was believed defunct. That’s a lucky break for Iridium, which otherwise might face civil or military threats from the Russian regime for destroying an important piece of state property.


Anonymous said...

The heading should be "Iridium destroy Russian satellite" because the Russian satellite was up there first.

Joel West said...

Well, in a head-on collision, both parties are killed. Normally the question is who crossed the centerline. There is a suggestion that the Cosmos was deteriorating and perhaps off its normal orbit, but more investigation is needed.

However, in this case, it’s more like an unmanned vehicle striking a manned one — in only one vehicle was anyone killed. The Cosmos is a piece of space junk, while the Iridium satellite was a functioning system.

If both were junk then the collision would only be a curiosity. If both satellites were functioning, I suspect there would never be an outcome satisfactory to both sides.