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Russia admits, yup, the Americans are right: One of our rocket's tanks just disintegrated in Earth's orbit

Good luck fishing all that out of the sky

Russian rocket tanks used to launch a radio telescope have broken up into 65 chunks, littering Earth’s orbit with debris.

The tanks, dumped from the Fregat-SB upper stage of the Zenit-3SLBF rocket that took the Spektr-R radio telescope into orbit in 2011, disintegrated on Friday, Roscosmos said on Sunday. “According to reports, the destruction occurred on May 8, 2020 in the time interval 08:00 - 09:00 Moscow time over the Indian Ocean,” a statement reads.

It’s not clear what caused the break-up. The 18th Space Control Squadron (18 SPCS) of the US Air Force went public with details of the disintegration on Saturday, and noted there was no evidence it was caused by a collision:

Roscosmos said it is counting up the exact number of fragments from the, well, rapid self-disassembly of the tank block. There are said to be at least 65 pieces whizzing round at thousands of miles per hour in an orbit with an apogee height of 3,606 kilometres, perigee height of 422 kilometres, and orbital inclination of 51.45 degrees.

As for the Spektr-R: it was declared defunct in early 2019 after going silent. At the time, it was Russia's only space telescope publicly known to be operational.


Star wreck: There's a 1 in 20 chance a NASA telescope and US military satellite will smash into each other today


Space junk is a growing problem as the heavens become more crowded with satellites and the remains of satellites. The fear is tiny pieces of debris will collide with probes, breaking off more bits that smash into other orbiters, creating a cascading chain reaction of destruction, often known as the Kessler syndrome, that hinders or thwarts future launches.

Data from the European Space Agency’s Space Debris Office was compiled by the Organisation for Economic and Cooperation and Development for a report this month that estimated this junk increases total mission costs by five to ten per cent – we're talking hundreds of millions of dollars – for satellites in geostationary orbit, and potentially more for low Earth orbit gear.

That money is spent protecting spacecraft, building and operating surveillance and tracking methods, and nudging existing satellites out of the way. And costs are set to increase if we throw more stuff out there with little care.

“Space debris protection and mitigation measures are already costly to satellite operators, but the main risks and costs lie in the future, if the generation of debris spins out of control and renders certain orbits unusable for human activities,” the study stated.

America's comms regulator, FCC, created new rules for operators launching satellites that beam broadband internet to and from orbit and subscribers on the ground in the US. Companies will have to submit risk assessments detailing how they plan to minimize the threat of space junk if they deploy birds around our home world. ®

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