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Military Now Tracking 18,000 Items ...

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... Which Could Damage, Destory Spacecraft


By Joel Achenbach

Washington Post Staff Writer

Friday, February 13, 2009; 2:56 PM

Satellite 33442 orbits the earth every 91 minutes, circling at an inclination of 56.1 degrees to the Equator and gradually slowing down, destined to fall into the atmosphere in late spring or summer and burn up. Aficionados of satellites know that 33442 is a toolbag. A spacewalking astronaut let it slip last year, adding one more tiny, artificial moon to the junk in low Earth orbit.

The military tracks about 18,000 pieces of orbital debris. Earlier this week the census of space-shmutz suddenly jumped by 600, the initial estimate of the number of fragments from a stunning collision Tuesday of two satellites high above Siberia.

Space is now polluted with the flotsam and jetsam of a satellite-dependent civilization. The debris is increasingly a hazard for human spaceflight and has put everything from the Hubble Space Telescope to communications satellites at risk of being struck by an object moving at hypervelocity.

The military's radar can spot objects about four inches in diameter, roughly the size of a baseball, or larger. This collision, however, may have produced many thousands of small, undetectable pieces of debris that would still carry enough kinetic punch at orbital velocities to damage or destroy a spacecraft.


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