Midspace Collision Takes Out Iridium Satellite

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As improbable as a midair collision is, the chance of two satellites finding each other is, well, astronomical. But it happened in the sky over Siberia Tuesday when a dead Russian spacecraft and a perfectly functional and likely highly expensive Iridium communications satellite turned into about 600 pieces (at last count) of orbital space junk. "They collided at an altitude of 790 kilometers (491 miles) over northern Siberia Tuesday about noon Washington time," Nicholas Johnson, NASA's chief scientist for orbital debris at the Johnson Space Center in Houston told CBS News "The U.S. space surveillance network detected a large number of debris from both objects."

The Air Force identified the Russian spacecraft as a communications relay station that was launched in 1993 and has been dead for at least 10 years. The 1,500 pound Iridium satellite was busy doing its job of relaying satellite phone signals when the accident occurred. Iridium said the loss of the satellite had "minimal impact" on service and will replace it with one of its in-orbit spares. The company has 66 operational satellites and an unspecified number of spares in orbit. As for who hit who, Brig. Gen. Michael Carey told CBS that space is the final frontier of traffic control. "They ran into each other. Nothing has the right of way up there," he said. "We don't have an air traffic controller in space. There is no universal way of knowing what's coming in your direction."