Foust Forward | The role of a reluctant regulator in space sustainability

There are close calls in space, and then there are close calls. At around 1:30 a.m. Eastern on Feb. 28, a NASA space science satellite called TIMED, operational but not maneuverable, passed near Cosmos 2221, a defunct Russian intelligence satellite. The conjunction was alarming enough to NASA that it notified media an hour before closest approach, warning that a collision “could result in significant debris generation.”
Fortunately, there was no collision. NASA didn’t disclose how close TIMED came to Cosmos 2221, but LeoLabs, a company that operates a network of space tracking radars, determined that the two spacecraft passed within 20 meters of each other. Had they collided, the collision could have produced up to 7,000 fragments large enough to track, increasing the debris population in low Earth orbit (LEO) by 50%.
Such close calls are rare: LeoLabs said it was aware of only six similar conjunctions in the last two years. One reason such events are not more frequen

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