Russian BLITS Satellite Blitzed By Chinese Space Debris

Video simulations of Russian BLITS satellite orbiting Earth and then being struck by debris from the Chinese Fengyun 1C

Russia’s really getting beat up on lately. First the fireball and now one of its satellites gets whacked by a piece of Chinese space junk. In 2007 China performed an anti-satellite weapons test destroying its Fengyun 1C weather satellite leaving in its place thousands of fragments of Earth-orbiting shrapnel.

The spreading debris cloud from the Chinese anti-satellite test in 2007. Left: one month after the hit. Right: 6 months later. Credit: NASA Orbital Debris Program Office

NASA estimates the test created some 950 objects 4 inches (10 cm) or larger in a debris cloud extending from 125 to nearly 2,300 miles (200-3,850 km) high covering all of low-Earth orbit where a great many satellites – including the space station – circle the planet. At the 1/2-inch level, the garbage totals up to more than 35,000 bits and bolts.

This miasmic cloud of human hubris represents the single greatest danger to orbiting satellites since the beginning of the space age. Much of it is hundreds of miles high and will take many years to “decay” or re-enter Earth’s atmosphere.

BLITS is essentially two spheres (one nested in the other) that measures a mere 6.7 inches in diameter. Half of the outer ball has a reflective coatings. Laser light beamed to the satellite returns to Earth. Timing the pulse gives a precise distance to the satellite. Credit: IPIE

The Russian Ball Lens in The Space (BLITS) nanosatellite, a small 16-lb. satellite used for laser-ranging studies, had been functioning properly when on January 22, 2013 it was hit by Chinese satellite debris according to an analysis by the Colorado-based Center for Space Standards and Innovation. Scientists noticed a sudden change in its orbit, spin period (amount of time it take to turn around its axis) and orientation in space. By Feb. 28 they knew the culprit: a chunk of Fengyun 1C debris.

Satellites need to rotate at a precise rate and orientation to maintain contact with Earth as well as serve as useful platforms for experiments. BLITS, now shattered into at least two pieces, tumbles about like a leaf. The satellite was equipped with mirrors called retroreflectors that reflected back brief pulses of laser light shot from an Earth station. By precisely measuring the time for light takes to make the two-way trip, scientists can determine the satellite’s distance to millimeter accuracy.

Frame grab from the video showing the impact of Fengyun 1C debris on a collision course with Russia’s BLITS satellite.

With that data, they’re able to measure Earth’s gravity field and seasonal height variations of the atmosphere, map the surface of the oceans and even tap into the structure of Earth’s interior.

Pity it was likely destroyed. We can only hope this serves as a lesson to other nations who might contemplate similar anti-satellite tests. Littering is bad whether on Earth or in orbit. Read more about the collision HERE.

1 Response

  1. Giorgio Rizzarelli

    From low Earth orbit to subanctartic lake Vostok, in 2013 man still didn’t learn to respect the environment.

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