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US, Russian satellites collide in space

A privately owned US communications satellite collided with a defunct Russian satellite in the first such mishap in space, a US military spokesman said yesterday.

The crash, which took place on Tuesday in low-earth orbit, involved a spacecraft of Iridium Satellite LLC and a Russian communications satellite, said Air Force Colonel Les Kodlick of the US Strategic Command.

"We believe it's the first time that two satellites have collided in orbit," he said, adding the debris was potentially a problem for space operations.

The command's Joint Space Operations Center was tracking 500 to 600 new bits of debris, some as small as 10 centimeters (3.9 inches) across, in addition to the 18,000 or so other man-made objects it has catalogued in space, Kodlick said.

The collision occurred at roughly 780 kilometers (485 miles), an altitude used by satellites that monitor weather and carry telephone communications among other things, he said.

"It's a very important orbit for a lot of satellites," he said.

The International Space Station flies at a lower altitude and is the command's top priority in attempting to prevent collisions.


Bethesda, Maryland-based Iridium operates the world's largest commercial satellite constellation made up of some 66 satellites plus orbiting spares.

Its constellation remained healthy, but some customers may experience brief, occasional outages pending a temporary fix expected to be in place by Friday, the company said.

"This event is not the result of a failure on the part of Iridium or its technology," said Liz DeCastro, a company spokeswoman.

Iridium said it planned to move one of its in-orbit spare satellites into the constellation to replace the lost craft within 30 days.

Among the 18,000-plus objects being tracked in space by the US Strategic Command are operational and defunct satellites, spent rocket boosters and debris that is 3.9 inches (10 cm) in diameter or larger.

Nicholas Johnson, an orbital expert at NASA's Johnson Space Center in Houston, said it was uncertain how much new debris had been created by the crash.

"It takes a while for the debris to spread out and for us to get an accurate head count," he said. NASA contracts with the Department of Defense for orbital tracking services and regularly maneuvers its spacecraft to avoid any crashes.

DeCastro said the company, which has a contract with Boeing Co to maintain and operate its satellites, received information about the crash from the US government.

One of the spacecraft was about the size of a Chinese satellite that Beijing deliberately knocked out in a weapons test two years ago, Johnson said.

That explosion generated about 2,500 pieces of potentially hazardous debris near the orbit where the crash took place.

There was no indication that the collision was intentional on the part of anyone, said a US government source who asked not to be named.


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