Serenely floats the satellite…

Here is a selection of some of the photos I’ve taken over the years.

At about 800km above our heads, myocarditis a satellite floats by. The satellite is covered in golden foil and glints in the harsh sunlight as it rounds the curved horizon of the Earth. This satellite

Data like this helps our understanding of Planet Earth (Image: JAXA, ESA)

is one of many others; loaded with sensors to scan the Earth to give scientists information on weather, agriculture, climate change and the state of our expansive oceans. This satellite has been the product of decades of continual research to allow us to see what is on the Earth’s surface; telecommunications to get the data back down to the scientists as quickly as possible and satellite design to optimise the performance and cost of these systems as much as possible.

The typical satellite of this type costs millions to develop (in sterling, dollars or euros) and that doesn’t include the cost to get it into orbit. Hundreds of engineers, scientists, researchers, economists, political lobbyists and a multitude of other trades have been involved in getting this system working. A good portion of these peoples’ professional lives have been dedicated to this one mission.

It can all end in a millisecond.

Travelling at the same altitude, a small piece of debris is drifting along. This small chunk of metal, the result of a satellite battery explosion decades before, is just one member of a growing cloud of junk that is infiltrating the whole of space around the Earth. At these altitudes, drifting means tearing along at over seven kilometers per second. The satellite of course, is travelling at nearly the same speed but in an opposite direction.

They hit.

An on-orbit collision causes catastrophic fragmentation (Image: ESA)

At a combined velocity of 14 kilometers a second, the two objects pass through each other with an explosive force. The piece of debris vapourises into a million aluminum droplets. The effect on the satellite is even more spectacular. At these energies, the structure of the satellite doesn’t even have time to bend or stretch as it is hit by the debris. It shatters.

Like a glass chandelier, the priceless technological resource disappears into a cloud of a thousand pieces. A thousand new pieces of orbital shrapnel to add to the other thousands more. They move apart rapidly, but all in the same general direction.

The problem is that at this altitude, there are many more satellites travelling in the same orbit, doing similar missions, helping us know more about our environment, making sure that crops are harvested at the best moment, that flood damage is minimal and we might have a chance of coping with a changing climate.

The European Space Agency is working hard to reduce these threats to our Space infrastructure through the ESA SSA Programme. You can learn more here

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