MELBOURNE, Fla. – Much like car crashes happen here on Earth, satellites – especially those operating in low-Earth orbit – have the potential of colliding with each other in space.
With thousands of artificial satellites orbiting Earth, every now and then, the orbit of one satellite can cross the path of another.
And there is a possibility of a collision occurring Wednesday.
Space debris tracking company LeoLabs tweeted on Monday that a decommissioned space telescope launched in 1983 and an experimental U.S. payload launched in 1967 would pass within meters of each other.
The company predicted that the two would pass within about 30 yards or less of each other 559 miles over Pittsburgh early Wednesday evening at a relative speed of more than nine miles per second.
According to LeoLabs, the probability of a collision is about 1 in 100.
“Events like this highlight the need for responsible, timely deorbiting of satellites for space sustainability moving forward,” LeoLabs said on Twitter. “We will continue to monitor this event through the coming days and provide updates as available.”
It isn’t clear whether a collision would pose a threat to people on the ground, astronauts onboard the International Space Station, other satellites orbiting our planet or the planet itself.
However, if the satellites do collide, they wouldn’t be the first to do so.
In 2009, two communication satellites – Iridium 33 and the Russian military Kosmos-2251 – crashed into each other 490 miles above the Taymyr Peninsula in Siberia.
NASA said the incident had created at least 1,000 pieces of space debris larger than 3.9 inches, in addition to many smaller ones. By 2011, the U.S. Space Surveillance Network had found over 2,000 large debris fragments from the collision.
Fortunately the astronauts onboard the International Space Station were not at risk, but the space station did have to perform an avoidance maneuver in March 2011. Chinese scientists, on the other hand, did say the debris posed a threat to Chinese satellites.
By January 2014, 24% of the known space debris had decayed or burned up in Earth’s atmosphere, but Space News reported about 1,500 of the tracked debris remained in orbit as of January 2016.
Follow Antonia Jaramillo on Twitter: @AntoniaJ_11.