Some operators of low Earth orbit satellites are bracing for a storm of debris. Russia’s demonstration of an antisatellite weapon last November, destroying the Cosmos 1408 satellite, created thousands of tracked pieces of debris, and many more too small to be tracked.
Much of that debris remains in orbits similar to the satellite, with an inclination of 82.3 degrees. That means the debris can end up running headlong into satellites operating in sun-synchronous orbits at inclinations of 97 degrees.
“When they sync up, you have the perfect storm: they’re in the same orbit plane but counter-rotating, crossing each other twice an orbit, again and again,” said Dan Oltrogge, director of integrated operations and research at COMSPOC. They create surges of close approaches, or conjunctions, dubbed “squalls” by the company, that can last for several days before the orbits drift apart.
The worst of the conjunction squalls is forecast for the first week of April, when the ASAT debris encounters several groups of Dove imaging cubesats operated by Planet as well as satellites operated by Satellogic, Spire and Swarm. The number of conjunctions will approach 50,000 per day during that time, compared to a background level of about 15,000 per day. Fortunately, because many of those satellites are cubesats, the risk of collisions won’t rise as dramatically.
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What’s notable about this analysis, beyond the existence of the squalls themselves, is that it was done by a private company, COMSPOC, and not by the Space Force’s 18th Space Control Squadron or the Office of Space Commerce. Oltrogge said COMSPOC has met with Planet and others, including NASA and the Space Force, about its assessment.