Chinese satellite in near miss with Russian ASAT test debris

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HELSINKI — A Chinese satellite experienced a near miss Tuesday with a piece of debris created by Russia’s destructive anti-satellite test conducted in November.

The Space Debris Monitoring and Application Center of the China National Space Administration (CNSA) issued a warning Tuesday of an extremely dangerous encounter between the Tsinghua Science satellite (NORAD ID: 46026) and one (49863) of more than a thousand trackable pieces of debris from the Nov. 15 ASAT test.

The warning was shared by official Chinese language industry media China Space News and reported by Chinese media. The close encounter event is backed up data from U.S. space tracking.

The notice stated that the closest approach was to a distance of 14.5 meters, but there is likely much more uncertainty regarding the distances involved,satellite tracker Jonathan McDowell, of the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics, told SpaceNews via email.

“While publicly available U.S. tracking data confirm that debris object 49863 did pass very close to the Tsinghua Science Satellite on January 18, the claim that the distance was only 14.5 meters is meaningless since they don’t quote any error bar, or the level of uncertainty,” McDowell stated.

“It is very unlikely China’s tracking can determine this distance to an accuracy of better than 100 meters or more, so “within a few hundred meters” is probably all they can reliably say.”

CNSA established its Space Debris Monitoring and Application Center in 2015, at the National Astronomical Observatory of the Chinese Academy of Sciences.

The small, spherical Tsinghua Science satellite was launched in August 2020 on a Long March 2D rocket to make atmospheric density and gravitational field measurements. It is in a 478 by 499-kilometer orbit inclined by 97.4 degrees. 

The roughly 2,000-kilogram Russian Cosmos-1408 satellite was launched in 1982 and destroyed Nov. 15 by the direct-ascent anti-satellite missile test.

“The test so far has generated more than 1,500 pieces of trackable orbital debris and will likely generate hundreds of thousands of pieces of smaller orbital debris,” the U.S. Space Command Public Affairs Office stated shortly after the ASAT test.

China’s Foreign Ministry has so far declined to comment on Russia’s ASAT test, with attracted opprobrium from countries around the world. Asked to comment on the matter during a Nov. 16 press conference, foreign ministry spokesperson Zhao Lijian said, “We noted relevant reports and that Russia has yet to respond. I think it is too early to make any comment.”

Any response would likely be complicated by China’s own 2007 destructive, debris-creating ASAT test. That test created debris that continues to be a hazard for the satellites and the International Space Station and likely now China’s own crewed station.

In an article from Beijing tabloid Global Times Jan. 20, cited experts stated that further close encounters cannot be ruled out. “Currently, they keep a safe distance but the chance for these two getting close in the future cannot be excluded,” said space debris expert Liu Jing.

Aerospace commentator Huang Zhicheng, told the publication that the growing issue of space debris should be addressed, including through international legal mechanisms.

“It is not only necessary to conduct research on experimental devices or spacecraft to remove space debris, but also to formulate corresponding international laws and regulations on the generation of space debris under the framework of the UN,” Huang said. 

The European Space Agency’s Space Debris Office estimates there are 36,500 objects in orbit greater than 10 centimeters and 1,000,000 objects from greater than 1 cm to 10 cm.

The Jan. 18 encounter is one of just a number of recent space debris events. In March 2021 China’s Yunhai-1 (02) satellite experienced a breakup following a probable collision with a piece of mission-related debris from a 1996 Russian Zenit launch.

In December China wrote to the United Nations in Vienna to call for states to be reminded of their international responsibility for national activities in outer space, directed at the United States, after the Chinese space station needed to maneuver on two occasions in 2021 to avoid Starlink close approaches with Starlink communications satellites belonging to SpaceX.

Analysis by COMSPOC Corp. indicates that Starlink spacecraft represent only 2.4 percent of the overall collision risks to the under-construction Tiangong facility. 

However those cases involved active satellites performing maneuvers to lower their orbits, bringing uncertainty amid apparent lack of communication between parties.

China is meanwhile planning to construct its own low Earth orbit communications megaconstellation, with ITU filings suggesting plans for up to 13,000 satellites.

Main image used through Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 IGO (CC BY-SA 3.0 IGO).