Space Billiards

There is an excellent and comprehensive discussion of the recent satellite collision over at The Space Review today. There is plenty of blame to go around, from perverse incentives in the military, to government policies that are long on rhetoric and short on funding and priority, and corporate risk taking:

It also appears that either Iridium or the JSpOC terminated the collision screening for the Iridium constellation at some point between July 2007 and the collision in February 2009, as Iridium has made repeated public statements that they did not receive any warning. Likewise, the US military has stated that they did not have any warning. The following additional comment by Campbell at the same event may shed some light as why this happened:

That said, this isn’t aviation; the Big Sky theory works [emphasis added]. We figure that the risk of a collision on any individual conjunction is about one in 50 million. However if we have 400 a week for ten years, you can do the math; clearly that risk is something bigger than zero. As I said, our coordination with JSpOC is great.

Basing the protection of the largest low Earth orbit constellation of satellites on such a theory, even when there is a significant amount of data showing that it could be false, leads one to question the decision-making process involved. Perhaps Iridium decided that they could not afford the resources to deal with the decision-making and maneuver planning to properly operate their satellites in a safe manner. If that is indeed true—and there is no known hard evidence either way—then they placed the short-term financial well being of one company over the long-term welfare of all.

Clearly, the entire international system in place for dealing with this kind of problem (to the degree that it exists at all) needs to be overhauled.

5 thoughts on “Space Billiards”

  1. I was told last week at a meeting that there are over 500 predicted conjunctions of objects passing within 1 KM of each other every day. The two that collided were no where near the top of the list in terms of threat. As the article pointed out, there are errors inherent with knowing precisely where the objects in space are located at any instant.

    Option 1 is to release the high-accuracy SP catalog publicly for all to access. This would allow all satellite owner-operators to do their own conjunction assessment and collision avoidance. There have been debates about doing this within the military before. The arguments against this option is that releasing such data could reveal the capabilities and limitations of the US military’s space situational awareness system and provide the data with which potential adversaries could use to target space assets. But this is potentially the quickest solution.

    While it may be the quickest solution, I predict it’s one that will never happen. The US military simply isn’t going to release that data because it gives away too much.

  2. Little birdies are tweeting that the possibility exists that the Cosmos satellite could have been “helped” into a collision.

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