The Satellite Collision that Never Happened?

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What has been reported by mainstream press to have been a satellite collision in late January, which allegedly damaged a Russian satellite, never took place, according to a U.S. defense official.

Major news outlets reported last week that the Russian BLITS satellite collided with a piece of orbital debris left after China conducted an antisatellite test using its own Feng Yun 1C satellite as a target in 2007. They quote experts at the Center for Space Standards & Innovation, who say the collision occurred Jan. 22.

However, a defense official says such an incident never occurred. “There is no definitive proof there was a collision,” this source says. Experts at the Air Force’s Joint Space Operations Center in California constantly track orbital debris and satellites the size of a softball or larger using a global electro-optical and radar sensor capability. Debris from the destroyed Chinese weather satellite actually never came close enough to the Russian BLITS satellite for the Air Force to notify operators of a possible collision, this source says. The defense official spoke on the condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak publicly about the matter.

The service routinely notifies operators if their satellites appear to be to close to one another or to debris in an effort to reduce the chances of such an incident, which would add to the growing catalog of debris already in space. The service tracks more than 19,000 objects.

The piece of orbital debris from the destroyed weather satellite has an “unchanged orbit,” indicating it never collided with anything, the official says.

The BLITS – or Ball Lens in the Space – spacecraft, however, has been tracked since January, when some say the collision occurred, as two separate objects. This indicates it may have broken up in orbit. Because Air Force officials are tracking two objects, a collision is unlikely. Collisions at orbital speeds typically cause objects to shatter, creating a large field of debris.

The satellite was launched in September 2009 from a Soyuz by the Federal Space Agency of Russia.

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