A defunct Russian satellite has collided in orbit with another from the Iridium satcomms fleet, according to reports. Both spacecraft were wrecked, creating two large clouds of hazardous high-speed debris. The International Space Station (ISS) is not thought to be in danger, however.
The Guardian quotes US air force colonel Les Kodlick as saying that the American military is tracking an additional 500 to 600 pieces of orbital debris as a result of the collision, adding to the 18,000 other objects already logged.
"We believe it's the first time that two satellites have collided in orbit," the colonel added.
The collision reportedly took place at 1655 GMT on Tuesday, at an altitude of 490 miles above Siberia.
The Russian satellite was a Cosmos telecoms bird launched in 1993 and no longer in service. The other sat dated from 1997 and was an active part of the Iridium network, which was originally intended to be the world's first global mobile phone system. However, GSM roaming beat Iridium to the punch and the network went bankrupt before being reborn with US government backing.
Iridium does have advantages over other satcomms systems, however, as it requires only a small antenna rather than a dish or other directional apparatus. It is critical to many specialist applications today - many of them involving the military and intelligence communities, perhaps giving a clue as to why the US government was so keen to revive the system.
The Iridium Satellite corporation told AFP that it expected only minor outages as a result of the collision.
"This satellite loss may result in very limited service disruption in the form of brief, occasional outages," the firm said, adding that the company expects to have a network solution in place by Friday, and will move one of its in-orbit spares to permanently replace the destroyed satellite within 30 days.
NASA officials said that the ISS was not thought to be in significant danger as it orbits at an altitude of 220 miles, well below that of the satellite wreckage clouds. Should any debris threaten the space station, it has the ability to manoeuvre so as to avoid being struck: this has already happened on eight occasions.
The event seems sure to provide excellent conspiracy-theory fodder at any rate. Just for starters, here's one: the Russians deliberately rammed the Iridium sat to prevent a particular satphone call/tracker-bug message/submarine data upload getting through.®