U.S., Russian orbiting satellites collide for first time

February 12, 2009






One U.S. communications satellite has collided with one defunct Russian satellite in space, NASA said Wednesday.

The first such collision in space occurred Tuesday nearly 805 km over Siberia, NASA spokesman Kelly Humphries said.

A pair of massive debris clouds was produced after the crash, the spokesman said, adding that the magnitude of the accident was still unknown.

According to an email alert issued by NASA Wednesday, Russia's Cosmos 2251 satellite slammed into the Iridium craft at 11:55 a.m. EST (0455 GMT) over Siberia at an altitude of 790 km. The incident was observed by the U.S. Defense Department's Space Surveillance Network, which later was tracking two large clouds of debris.

"This is the first time we've ever had two intact spacecraft accidentally run into each other," said Nicholas Johnson, chief scientist of NASA's Orbital Debris Program Office at the Johnson Space Center in Houston. "It was a bad day for both of them."

Iridium, which operates a constellation of 66 low Earth orbiting satellites providing mobile voice and data communications globally, also said Wednesday that the incident could result in limited disruptions of service.

In a prepared statement, the Bethesda, Maryland-based Iridium characterized the incident as a "very low probability event" and said it was taking immediate action to minimize any loss of service.

Iridium said its system remains healthy and that it would implement a "network solution" by Friday.

"Within the next 30 days, Iridium expects to move one of its in-orbit spare satellites into the network constellation to permanently replace the lost satellite," the statement said.

The 560-kg Iridium 33 satellite involved in the collision was launched in 1997 while the 900-kg Russian satellite was launched in 1993 and presumed non-operational.