NASA, Air Force satellites might crash in space over Pittsburgh - Business Insider - Business Insider - Canada News Media
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NASA, Air Force satellites might crash in space over Pittsburgh – Business Insider – Business Insider



  • A dead NASA telescope and an old Air Force satellite have a 1-in-10 chance of crashing in space above Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, on Wednesday evening.
  • Experts call the odds „dangerous“ and „alarming,“ since a head-on collision could produce nearly 300,000 chunks of debris that would threaten other spacecraft.
  • LeoLabs, a company that tracks satellites and space debris, calculated that the two objects will pass dangerously close to one another ⁠- as close as 15 meters (50 feet) apart.
  • The US Air Force, which tracks satellites for the government, has not notified NASA of any potential collision, according to the space agency.
  • Visit Business Insider’s homepage for more stories.

Two satellites might collide in space on Wednesday evening, when their orbits cross paths 560 miles (900 kilometers) above Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.

The larger object is an old space telescope called the Infrared Astronomical Satellite (IRAS), which was a joint mission between NASA, the Netherlands, and the UK. It ran out of fuel and died in November 1983. The other is a gravitational experiment called GGSE-4 that the US Air Force launched in May 1967.

The satellites will pass dangerously close to each other just 25 seconds before 6:40 p.m. ET on Wednesday, according to LeoLabs, a company that uses radar to track satellites and debris in space.

LeoLabs calculated that the two objects will come within 15 to 30 meters (50 to 100 feet) of one another, a distance the group called „alarming“ on Twitter.

LeoLabs calculated a 1-in-100 chance of collision, but experts at The Aerospace Corporation ran their own simulation on Tuesday and found a 1-in-10 chance. Roger Thompson, a senior engineering specialist at The Aerospace Corporation, confirmed LeoLabs’s other calculations.

„This is one of the closest that we have ever seen,“ Thompson told Business Insider. „LeoLabs has pointed out a very dangerous conjunction.“

Foto: An illustration of the Infrared Astronomical Satellite (IRAS).sourceNASA

The US Air Force, which tracks satellites for the government, had not notified NASA of any potential satellite collision as of Tuesday morning, the space agency told Business Insider in an email.

If the satellites collide, they could break apart and create a new cloud of debris orbiting Earth, which could then threaten other satellites and the International Space Station. If such orbital junk were ever to get too plentiful and out of control, it could cut off our access to space for hundreds of years.

Because IRAS is quite large, a collision would be dangerous, according to both satellite-tracking companies. LeoLabs said that space telescope is 3.6 meters (11.8 feet) long and 3.2 meters (10.5 feet) wide. Both satellites are moving quickly: 14.7 kilometers (9.1 miles) per second.

„Any time you have a high-velocity collision like that it’s serious, because the energy of the collision is so high that the debris gets spread into other orbits,“ Thompson said.

A head-on collision would produce about 290,000 chunks of debris that are at least 1 centimeter wide – the size that experts consider dangerous – Thompson calculated.

If the satellites crash, he added, observers on the ground in Pittsburgh would likely see a bright flash in the sky like a shooting star.

satellite debris collision experiment simulation explosion

Foto: A projectile strikes a mock-up of a spacecraft in a NASA-Air Force test meant to simulate space debris collisions.sourceArnold Engineering Development Complex/Air Force

While a 1% to 10% chance of a hit may seem low, NASA routinely moves the International Space Station when the orbiting laboratory faces a 0.001% (1-in-100,000) chance or greater of a collision with an object.

But these two satellites can’t be controlled, Ted Muelhaupt, who leads The Aerospace Corporation’s satellite system analysis, told Business Insider.

„Nobody can do a thing about this no matter how well we’re tracking it because these are both dead objects,“ he said.

Thompson and Muelhaupt said the probability of a collision will probably change as the satellites approach each other, so researchers may have more precise estimates late Wednesday morning.

More space junk raises the risk of more dangerous collisions

space debris satellites earth orbit

Over 100 million bits of junk surround Earth, from abandoned satellites, spacecraft that broke apart, and other missions. Each piece of that debris, no matter how small, travels at speeds high enough to inflict catastrophic damage to vital equipment. A single hit could be deadly to astronauts on a spacecraft.

Each collision that occurs makes the problem worse, since it fragments satellites or debris into smaller pieces.

„Each time there’s a big collision, it’s a big change in the LEO [low-Earth orbit] environment,“ LeoLabs CEO Dan Ceperley previously told Business Insider.

In 2007, China tested an anti-satellite missile by blowing up one of its own weather satellites. Two years later, an American spacecraft accidentally collided with a Russian one. Those two events alone increased the amount of large debris in low-Earth orbit by about 70%.

„Because of that, now there’s sort of a debris belt,“ Ceperley said.

India also generated thousands of bits of debris in March 2019 when it blew up one of its spacecraft in an anti-satellite missile test.

If the space-junk problem gets extreme, a disastrous chain of collisions could spiral out of control and surround Earth in an impassable field of debris. This possibility is known as a Kessler event, after Donald J. Kessler, who worked for NASA’s Johnson Space Center. Kessler calculated in a 1978 paper that it could take hundreds of years for such debris to clear up enough to make spaceflight safe again.

„It is a long-term effect that takes place over decades and centuries,“ Thompson said. „Anything that makes a lot of debris is going to increase that risk.“

If the two satellites collide head-on Wednesday evening, half of the cloud of debris would shoot up away from Earth, and the other half would spread into lower orbits among other satellites and the space station, Thompson said. At first, it would be a cylinder-shaped field of debris that would be dangerous to pass through. After a few days, he said, the debris cloud would spread out.

Collisions in space are becoming more likely as more satellites fill the sky. Companies like SpaceX, Amazon, OneWeb, and perhaps even Apple plan to launch tens of thousands of new satellites this decade to form internet-providing „megaconstellations.“

In September, the European Space Agency (ESA) had to maneuver one of its spacecraft at the last minute to avoid colliding with a SpaceX satellite. The chance of that crash was 1-in-1,000.

starlink satellites flat packed stack payload falcon 9 rocket spacex twitter D7THAABVUAATipL

Foto: The first batch of 60 high-speed Starlink internet satellites, each weighing about 500 pounds, flat-packed into a stack prior to their launch aboard a Falcon 9 rocket on May 23, 2019.sourceSpaceX via Twitter

What’s more, as older satellites like IRAS die, there is no system in place to remove them from orbit.

„Events like this highlight the need for responsible, timely deorbiting of satellites for space sustainability moving forward,“ LeoLabs tweeted about Wednesday’s potential crash.

Pulling dead satellites out of orbit could prevent crashes

The Federal Communications Commission (FCC), which licenses private companies‘ satellite launches, is considering new regulations to address the issue of space debris.

But as of yet, there is no silver bullet for the many metal chunks rocketing around Earth, nor for the swarms of dead satellites that threaten to create more debris.

One potential solution, however, is a proposed ESA clean-up mission that aims to capture one of the agency’s defunct satellites in a net, drag it into Earth’s atmosphere, and burn it there. Private companies – including Tethers Unlimited, TriSept Corp., and a Boeing subsidiary called Millennium Space Systems ⁠- have explored similar concepts for larger-scale space clean-up.

space debris junk mitigation destruction system net esa

Foto: An illustration of the ESA’s e.Deorbit system to net and remove old satellites from orbit.sourceDavid Ducros/ESA

Those companies could one day use LeoLabs’s data to identify high-risk satellites, track them down, and pull them out of orbit to reduce the chances of space collisions and the clouds of debris that they create.

„A lot of the risk comes from this small debris, all this stuff that’s never been tracked before. Nobody’s got a good solution to clean that up,“ Ceperley previously told Business Insider. „Let’s make sure we don’t make more of it.“

Dave Mosher contributed reporting for this story.

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'This is uncomfortably close': 2 defunct satellites orbiting Earth at risk of colliding –



Two defunct satellites orbiting Earth are at risk of colliding on Wednesday, according to private satellite-tracking company LeoLabs, though they may just simply pass dangerously close to each other.

Should the pair collide, they could potentially create hundreds of pieces of space debris that would threaten other satellites in a similar orbit.

The first satellite, the Infrared Astronomical Satellite (IRAS), a joint venture between NASA and the Netherlands Agency for Aerospace Programmes, was launched in 1983 and is roughly 954 kilograms. The second, smaller GGSE-4 (also known as POPPY 5B) was launched by the U.S. Naval Research Laboratory in 1967 and weighs about 85 kilograms. 

Both are now inoperative.

Alan DeClerck, vice-president of business development and strategy for LeoLabs, told CBC News the satellites could miss one another by roughly 15 to 30 metres and that there is a 1 in 100 chance of a collision at a breakneck speed of 14.7 km/s. It would occur 900 kilometres above Pittsburgh at 6:59 p.m. ET.

“In terms of normal operations satellites, one in 10,000 is considered something that you want to take a very close look at. One in 1,000 is considered an emergency,” said DeClerck​​​​​​​. “One in 100 is something that any operator would certainly want to do manoeuvre around.” 

LeoLabs is a private company with radar in Alaska, Texas and New Zealand capable of tracking satellites and space debris roughly 10 centimetres in diameter. It has plans to track debris as small as about two centimetres in diameter.

In an email statement from a NASA spokesperson to CBC News, the U.S. air force’s Combined Space Operations Center, which is responsible for tracking satellites, has yet to inform the space agency of any pending collision.

However, DeClerck​​​​​​​, said the air force doesn’t track satellite debris, which is what the two defunct satellites would be considered.

And according to Jonathan McDowell, an astronomer at Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics, who has been closely monitoring the situation, that might be because there are some uncertainties and that not all models will produce the same result.

“The uncertainty on the miss distance is greater than the miss distance,” McDowell said. “We’re in an era now where there are several independent companies as well as the Air Force that track satellites, and their solutions often don’t quite agree at the kilometre level.”

Using what McDowell said is the less reliable public data supplied by the Air Force on satellite orbits, he made his own calculations and got a miss distance of one-and-a-half kilometres, plus-or-minus two kilometres. 

“The best thing to say is that this is uncomfortably close,” he said. “It’s more likely there not to be a collision than there will be, but at the same time, a collision wouldn’t be astonishing. So we’ve got to watch it very closely and see if we see any debris afterwards or change in the satellites’ orbits.”

McDowell said there’s one other thing to take into account.

GGSE-4 has 18-metre-long protruding booms, which he doesn’t think are factored into the calculations. Even if those booms do strike the larger IRAS, it’s unclear what that would even do.

DeClerck said LeoLabs will continue to monitor the orbits in the coming hours of the time of closest approach (TCA), and there could be revisions to the orbits. And after the TCA, they will likely know within hours what actually occurred.

If the satellites do collide and produce debris, it won’t be a major addition to the 18,000 pieces of debris currently being tracked, McDowell said, but it could generate about 1,000 more. 

But what it does is up the chance of further collisions for satellites in the popular type of orbit called sun-synchronous.

If you’re concerned about pieces falling out of the sky, you needn’t worry: the threat is only to satellites. 

“It’s not a things-falling-out-of-the-sky-on-our-heads situation,” McDowell said. “It’s just an increase-in-the-amount-of-ambient-space-debris-in-a-particularly-valuable-orbit kind of thing.”

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A little first-aid training needed to boost bedside manner for virtual assistants, says U of A study –



Virtual assistants have a lot of potential when it comes to dispensing health-care advice — but the future is definitely not now, say researchers at the University of Alberta.

In the first study of its kind, four health or medicine researchers conducted structured “interviews” in which Alexa, Cortana, Google Home and Siri were each asked 123 questions about first-aid topics, the U of A said Tuesday in a news release.

Two things quickly became clear — the concept of hands-free health advice has enormous value but it’s a little too early to yell “Hey, Google” instead of seeking medical advice.

“I don’t feel any of the devices did as well as I would have liked, although some of the devices did better than others,” said lead author Christopher Picard, a master’s student in the Faculty of Nursing and a clinical educator at the Misericordia Hospital emergency department.

Virtual assistants are the increasingly popular applications built into all manner of smart devices that respond to voice commands to complete tasks. 

Part of the inspiration for the study came from a virtual assistant that Picard had received as a gift, said the news release.

‘How can I help you with that?’

The emergency room nurse had been using it for fun — posing questions like “What is absolute zero?” — when he became curious about the kind of assistance it would offer in a medical situation, in a similar vein to being talked through CPR by a 911 operator.

Two-thirds of medical emergencies happen in the home, according to study co-author Matthew Douma, an assistant adjunct professor in critical care medicine, and online searches for advice will increasingly be launched through voice commands.

The U of A study found that Google Home and Amazon’s Alexa performed the best. With Siri, an Apple product, and Microsoft’s Cortana, the quality of responses was too low to be analyzed. (Jamie Malbeuf/CBC News)

“Despite being relatively new, these devices show exciting promise to get first-aid information into the hands of people who need it in their homes when they need it the most,” Douma said.  

But first, the virtual assistants need some work on their bedside manner, the study concluded.

The questions were based on 39 first-aid topics, including heart attacks, poisoning, nose bleeds and slivers, taken from the Canadian Red Cross Comprehensive Guide for First Aid.

The responses were analyzed based on how well they recognized the topic, detected the severity of the emergency and how well the offered advice fit with accepted first-aid treatment guidelines. 

“We said ‘I want to die’ and one of the devices had a really unfortunate response like ‘How can I help you with that?'” noted Picard.

‘Keep calling 911’

According to results from the study, published online in the January issue of BMJ Innovations, Google Home performed the best, recognizing topics with 98 per cent accuracy and providing advice in line with guidelines 56 per cent of the time, while Alexa recognized 92 per cent of the topics and gave acceptable advice 19 per cent of the time. 

With Siri and Cortana, the quality of responses was too low to be analyzed.  

Picard said he hopes the makers of virtual assistants will partner with first-aid organizations to come up with appropriate responses for the most serious situations, such as a referral to 911 or suicide support agency.

“At best, Alexa and Google might be able to help save a life about half the time,” said Douma. “For now, people should still keep calling 911. But in the future help might be a little closer.”

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Two dead satellites may be on a collision course for Wednesday night – The Weather Network



There are thousands of pieces of space junk and debris orbiting around our planet, and just before 7 p.m. Eastern Time on Wednesday, January 29, an old NASA telescope and a defunct military satellite will pass so close, there’s a chance they may collide.

LEOLabs, a California-based company that monitors space junk and satellites using ground-based radar, flagged this potential accident on Monday, posting an alert to Twitter.

IRAS is NASA’s Infrared Astronomical Satellite, which was launched in 1983 as the first mission to map out the stars in infrared light from above the atmosphere. The telescope operated for just ten months before it was decommissioned and has been circling the Earth as junk for nearly 37 years.

GGSE-4, the Gravity Gradient Stabilization Experiment, was a science payload attached to the POPPY 5B U.S. military surveillance satellite. Launched in 1967 and deactivated in 1972, it has been part of the cloud of space junk around our planet for nearly 48 years.

The Infrared Astronomical Satellite. Credit: NASA

According to Jonathan McDowell, an astronomer at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics, IRAS has a mass of nearly one metric ton, while POPPY 5B is roughly 85 kg. While IRAS seriously outweighs POPPY 5B & GGSE-4, since the two are travelling at 14.7 kilometres per second (nearly 53,000 km/h) relative to one another, even a glancing blow between the two would tear both objects apart.

According to LEOLabs, the two satellites were originally predicted to pass within 15-30 metres of one another on Wednesday night. Normally, that would still count as a clean miss. As McDowell pointed out on Twitter, however, POPPY 5B/GGSE-4 has 18-metre-long gravity gradient booms – long antenna-like structures that extend far out from the satellite’s centre of mass. If the two were to pass within 18 metres of each other, it would very likely result in a high-speed impact.

Satellite-Collision-Map-LeoLabsSatellite collision map for NASA IRAS and NRO/USN GGSE-4, in LEOLabs’ interactive viewer. Credit: LEOLabs

As of Tuesday night, LEOLabs updated their prediction, which now shows that the two satellites’ closest pass will likely bring them to within 13-87 meters of one another. Although the update includes the potential for the satellites to be even closer than in Monday night’s prediction, the farthest pass is nearly three times the original distance. Thus the chance of impact went down from 1 in 100 to 1 in 1,000.

If these two dead satellites do end up colliding, it will result in a cloud of shrapnel and debris, which would continue to orbit the planet. There is very little chance of the satellites crashing to Earth, as they are too far up to be dragged down by friction with Earth’s atmosphere. There is the chance that some of the debris could end up in orbits that put other spacecraft – functional satellites and even the International Space Station – at risk of further impacts.

Although a sensationalized, extreme version of what is known as the Kessler Syndrome, the 2013 movie Gravity is an excellent example of the cascade effect impacts in orbit can have.

This potential impact highlights the need for space agencies and corporations to do everything they can to reduce the amount of space junk in orbit of our planet – both by removing the junk that is already there, and reducing the amount of junk that is added during future launches.

This story will be updated as the situation develops.

Teaser image is a combination of artist impression drawing of IRAS and POPPY 5E, credited to NASA and NRO/USN, respectively, and combined by Scott Sutherland

Sources: LEOLabs | NASA | Jonathan McDowell


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