MOSCOW — The crash of two satellites has generated an estimated tens of thousands of pieces of space junk that could circle Earth and threaten other satellites for 10,000 years, space experts said Friday.
One expert called Tuesday's collision "a catastrophic event" that he hoped would force President Obama's administration to address the long-ignored issue of debris in space.
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 4 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.
Russian Mission Control chief Vladimir Solovyov said Tuesday's smashup of a derelict Russian military satellite and a working U.S. Iridium commercial satellite occurred in the busiest part of near-Earth space — some 500 miles above Earth.
That "is a very popular orbit which is used by Earth-tracking and communications satellites," Solovyov said Friday. "The clouds of debris pose a serious danger to them."
James Oberg, a NASA veteran and a space consultant, described the crash over northern Siberia as a "catastrophic event." NASA said it was the first high-speed impact between two intact spacecraft — with the Iridium craft weighing 1,235 pounds and the Russian craft nearly a ton.
"At physical contact at orbital speeds, a hypersonic shock wave bursts outward through the structures," Oberg said. "It literally shreds the material into confetti and detonates any fuels."
That's on top of material that's been accumulating in space for decades. China intentionally destroyed an aging satellite of its own in 2007 to demonstrate a new missile's capability. The obliteration of that satellite left behind 2,500 trackable fragments, said Nicholas Johnson, NASA's chief scientist for orbital debris.