WASHINGTON — An experimental Russian laser-ranging satellite that at least one prominent scientist suggested was hit in January by debris from a 2007 Chinese anti-satellite test most likely broke apart for a different reason, according to the Pentagon.
In a statement provided to SpaceNews, U.S. Air Force Lt. Col. Monica Matoush, a spokeswoman for the Defense Department, said it is unlikely that Russia’s Ball Lens in the Space, or BLITS, satellite was hit by debris from the test, in which China destroyed one of its own satellites with a ground-launched missile. The test created tens of thousands of pieces of orbital debris that have on numerous occasions forced operators to maneuver their spacecraft out of harm’s way.
U.S. Strategic Command’s Joint Space Operations Center (Jspoc) did in fact detect an “event” involving the BLITS satellite that created a single piece of debris, the statement said. “The Jspoc is currently tracking both objects but defers all questions as to the status of the satellite itself to the Russian Federation,” the statement said.
Several media outlets, including SpaceNews, reported earlier in March that the BLITS satellite might have collided with a piece of debris from the Chinese test. The reports cited an analysis by T.S. Kelso, a senior research astrodynamicist with the Center for Space Standards & Innovation (CSSI), a research arm of orbit modeling software provider AGI of Exton, Pa.
In a March 8 blog posting, Kelso said CSSI was contacted in February by Russian scientists seeking to find out what caused significant changes that they had observed to the orbit of the 7.5-kilogram BLITS satellite. An analysis by the Russian scientists concluded that the changes occurred Jan. 22.
CSSI conducted its own analysis and found that the date coincided with a close approach, or conjunction, involving a piece of debris from the destruction of China’s Fengyun-1C weather satellite, Kelso said. Although there was data to indicate there was no collision, the fact that the change in the BLITS orbit occurred within 10 seconds of the fragment’s approach led Kelso to conclude that it did occur. Kelso said his conclusion was supported by data released March 3 by the Jspoc, the Pentagon’s space traffic management center.
But the statement from Matoush said otherwise. The statement said no tracked object, including fragments from Fengyun-1C, came close enough to BLITS for Jspoc to notify Russia, as it normally would do.
“Furthermore, the debris cited in media reports has been unchanged in its orbital track since before January 22, the assessed date of BLITS event,” the statement said. “Therefore, the [Jspoc] does not assess it was a likely candidate for causing the BLITS event.”
Kelso was not immediately available for comment.
One independent analyst suggested that based on the available information it appears likely that the BLITS satellite was hit by a piece of debris too small to be tracked by the U.S. Space Surveillance Network. It is less likely that the satellite broke up on its own, this analyst said.
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