Little Bits of History


Posted in History by patriciahysell on February 10, 2014
Collision of Iridium 33  and

Collision of Iridium 33 and Kosmos 2251

February 10, 2009: The first major collision of two manmade satellites in Earth orbit takes place. Iridium 33 was a US communications satellite launched on September 14, 1997. It was manufactured by Lockheed Martin which is headquartered in Bethesda, Maryland. They are a global technology company formed by the merger of Lockheed Corporation with Martin Marietta in March 1995. L-3 Communications formed in 1997 from portions of the two larger companies that were spun off. Today, they are headquartered in New York City and remain active in the communication sector. L-3 refers to the three founders, Frank Lanza, Robert LaPenta, and Lehman Brothers.

Kosmos 2251 was a Russian Strela-2M communication satellite. It was launched on June 16, 1993. It was launched into a Low Earth orbit from Site 312/1 at the Plesetsk Cosmodrome. The first three Kosmos satellites were launched on August 18, 1964 and they all reentered the atmosphere in November of that year. There were five different types of satellites used over the years. The last of these, Strela-3, is still used today and is also sometimes called Rodnik.

At the time of the collision, Iridium 33 was owned by Iridium Communications, Inc. and Kosmos 2251 was owned by the Russian Space Forces. The Iridium satellite was still operational at the time of the impact but the Russian satellite had been out of service since at least 1995 and was not being actively controlled. There had been several smaller collisions out in space prior to this, all of them low-velocity collisions. In 1996, the Cerise satellite collided with space debris. There have been eight total high-velocity collisions and they were usually noted after the fact.

The Russian satellite was larger and weighed 2,094 pounds while the American one weighed in at 1,235 pounds. It was part of a constellation of 66 communication satellites. When the two collided, they were destroyed. The impact caused at about 1,000 pieces of debris measuring more 4 inches or more and many smaller pieces. The debris was a risk to other satellites and the International Space Station (although it is a low risk) as well as a threat to shuttle launches. There is more risk to Chinese Sun-synchronous orbits. As time went on, the pieces of debris continued to decay toward Earth and as they entered the atmosphere, they were destroyed. Satellites in space come within several miles of each other many times a day. Precise location of all satellites is difficult to maintain and avoidance maneuvers are not always possible. Because of the amount of old, out of date satellites in orbit, there is concern that out of use satellites should be taken out of orbit. There is no international law making this mandatory.

Man is flying too fast for a world that is round. Soon he will catch up with himself in a great rear end collision. – James Thurber

If you wish to avoid foreign collision, you had better abandon the ocean. – Henry Clay

For the wise man looks into space and he knows there is no limited dimensions. – Lao Tzu

Space is big. You just won’t believe how vastly, hugely, mind-bogglingly big it is. I mean, you may think it’s a long way down the road to the drug store, but that’s just peanuts to space. – Douglas Adams

Also on this day: American Mensa – In 1971, American Mensa was formed.
Boxing and Brains – In 1933, Ernie Schaaf was injured during a boxing match and died three days later.
St. Scholastica Riots – In 1355, The St. Scholastica’s Day riot began.
Arsonist – In 2008, the Namdaemun gate was set afire.


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