Close Call! NASA Spacecraft Narrowly Dodges Russian Satellite In Low-Earth Orbit

hero nasa timed satellite
NASA confirmed a near miss between its own TIMED satellite and Russia’s defunct Cosmos 2221 satellite. If the two had collided, it could have generated considerable debris at about 373 miles (600km) above Earth’s surface.

The Department of Defense was closely monitoring the situation between the two satellites before the near miss event, and NASA says it won’t be the last time these two non-maneuverable sats do a dangerous space tango high above Earth. NASA’s Thermosphere Ionosphere Mesosphere Energetics and Dynamics Mission, also referred to as the TIMED satellite, made its close pass of Russian Cosmos 2221 satellite around 1:30am EST on Wednesday. In a statement, NASA confirmed the pair safely passed one another, and it was the closest pass in the current predicted orbit determinations.

leolabs timed miss

LeoLabs also confirmed the two satellites’ near miss. In a tweet, the company remarked, “Too close for comfort,” adding that it observed a “conjunction at 608km between two non-maneuverable spacecraft: a derelict Russian satellite and an operational NASA satellite.” LeoLabs estimated the near miss to be <20 meters, with a probability of collision of 3 to 8% at TCA.

The reason this near miss caught the attention of the DoD and LeoLabs was because the event is rare. According to LeoLabs, there have only been 6 events with a miss distance of <20m between two intact, non-maneuverable objects in low-Earth orbit (LEO). It would have also caused a debris field that would have posed a risk to a large portion of low-Earth orbiting spacecraft, as well as human spaceflight. LeoLabs estimated that if the pair had collided, it would have resulted in “~2,000 to 7,000 cataloged fragments.” LeoLabs indicated If TIMED and Cosmos 2221 had collided, it would have increased the nearly 12,000 current fragments floating in LEO by over 50%.

Fortunately, this precarious tango between TIMED and Cosmos 2221 ended in a non-destructive end. However, as more satellites continue to launch into LEO, the risk of future collisions rises.