Low-intensity explosion sends debris flying from Russian satellite

TOKYO – A Russian satellite likely suffered a “low-intensity explosion” that created hundreds of pieces of debris in low Earth orbit, according to an analysis by a company.

The U.S. Space Command and private space awareness providers reported that the Russian remote sensing satellite Resurs P1 suffered a disintegration accident on June 26. The event created more than 100 pieces of debris that can be tracked by ground-based sensors.

The cause of the breakup is still unclear, but LeoLabs, which was the first to publicly report the event, believes a “low-intensity explosion” either from a collision or within the spacecraft itself created the debris. That explosion sent at least 250 pieces of debris flying to altitudes of up to 500 kilometers.

This conclusion came from the company’s analysis of that debris cloud, using its own tools to look at the number distribution of debris objects to better understand what created them.

“While much of the debris cloud has yet to be fully analyzed, our initial assessment concludes that the most likely cause of the event is a low-intensity explosion,” LeoLabs concluded in Statement dated July 3, posted on LinkedIn“This explosion may have been caused by external triggers such as a small fragment impact (currently unclassified) or an internal structural failure that led to the failure of the propulsion system.”

This analysis rules out speculation that the satellite may have been used as a target for an anti-satellite weapons test, much like Cosmos 1408 in November 2021. There were no other indications, such as statements from the Russian or US military or airspace restrictions, that such a test was planned or carried out.

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The explosion does not appear to have caused the satellite to completely disintegrate. Visual observations of Resurs P by Sybilla Technologies, a Polish space situational awareness company, Report says main satellite still in placespin for two to three seconds.

The images were taken before separation by HEO, an Australian company that uses commercial satellites to image other celestial objects. It appears that the solar panels on Resurs P1 and the two subsequent spacecraft, P2 and P3, failed to fully deploy.It is not clear whether this publishing glitch is in any way related to the breakup.

While a breakup doesn’t seem like the worst-case scenario, it still poses a risk to other satellites in low Earth orbit. Leo Labs notes that some of the debris’ altitude is taking it through orbits used by several other operational satellites, as well as the International Space Station and China’s Tiangong space station. The objects will likely remain in orbit for “weeks to months” before atmospheric drag causes them to disintegrate.

“This event demonstrates the ongoing risk of spacecraft becoming inoperable in orbit,” the company concluded. Resurs P1 was decommissioned in 2021 and will return later this year as its orbit, currently about 355 kilometers, decays.

LeoLabs added that this is not the only project, as “there are more than 2,500 intact abandoned devices (i.e. abandoned rocket structures and inoperable payloads) that could meet a similar fate to Resurs P1 over time.”

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