Low-intensity explosion caused Russian satellite to eject debris

TOKYO — A Russian satellite likely suffered a “low-intensity explosion” that created hundreds of pieces of debris in low Earth orbit, a company analysis has found.

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

The cause of the breakup remains unclear, but LeoLabs, which first reported the event, believes a “low-intensity explosion” may have created the debris, either from a collision or from within the spacecraft itself. That explosion created at least 250 debris fragments at altitudes extending as high as 500 kilometers.

This conclusion came from the company’s analysis of the debris cloud, which used its own tools to look at the number of scattered debris objects to better understand what caused the debris cloud.

“While a large portion of the debris cloud remains to be fully analyzed, our preliminary assessment concludes that the most likely cause of the event is a low-intensity explosion,” LeoLabs concluded in a July 3 statement on LinkedIn. “This explosion could have been triggered by external stimuli, such as an impact from a small fragment (currently not cataloged) or an internal structural failure leading to a failure of the propulsion system.”

That analysis rules out speculation that the satellite was used as a target for an anti-satellite weapons test, similar to Cosmos 1408 in November 2021. There was no other evidence, such as statements from the Russian or U.S. militaries or airspace restrictions, that suggested such a test was planned or carried out.

The explosion does not appear to have caused the satellite itself to completely break apart. Optical observations of Resurs P by Sybilla Technologies, a Polish spatial situational awareness company, report that the main satellite is still there, spinning with a period of two to three seconds.

Images taken before the rupture by HEO, an Australian company that uses commercial satellites to image other space objects, show that the solar panels on Resurs P1 and two subsequent spacecraft, P2 and P3, are not fully deployedIt is not clear whether this implementation glitch is in any way related to the breach.

While the fragmentation event does not appear to be a worst-case scenario, it still poses a hazard to other satellites in low Earth orbit. LeoLabs noted that the altitude of some of the debris carries it through the orbits used by many other operational satellites, as well as the International Space Station and China’s Tiangong Space Station. Those objects will likely remain in orbit for “weeks to months” before decaying due to atmospheric drag.

“This event demonstrates the ongoing risk of a defunct spacecraft in orbit,” the company concluded. Resurs P1 was decommissioned in 2021 and is set to return later this year as its orbit, currently about 355 kilometers (220 miles), shrinks.

It’s not alone, LeoLabs added. “There are over 2,500 long-lived intact, abandoned hardware (i.e., abandoned rocket bodies and non-operational payloads) that could suffer a similar fate as Resurs P1 over time.”

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