Another cloud of Russian space debris has blossomed into orbit.
An Earth orbiting object cataloged as # 32398 broke on April 15, the US Space Force’s 18th Space Defense Squadron tweeted Tuesday (May 3). Sixteen pieces of space debris associated with the event are currently being monitored, the squadron added.
The object no. 32398 was an empty engine of a space tug that helped bring three Russian GLONASS satellites into orbit in 2007, according to journalist and author Anatoly Zak, which runs RussianSpaceWeb.com. (GLONASS is the Russian version of the GPS navigation system.)
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Those GLONASS spacecraft took off atop a Russian Proton rocket, whose upper stage had two small vacuum engines, according to astrophysicist and satellite locator Jonathan McDowell, who is based at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics. Ullage engines accelerate the parent rocket stages slightly, to ensure that the fuel from the boosters is properly placed in the tanks for the engine to restart in orbit, McDowell explained in a report. series of tweets tuesday. (After all, you can’t rely on gravity to pull the propellant towards the engine.)
These Proton upper stage vacuum motors are known as SOZ motors and there are currently 64 of them in Earth orbit, McDowell tweeted. The acronym is short for “Sistema Obespecheniya Zapuska”, which roughly translates as “Launch Assurance System,” he said.
“SOZ engines don’t use up all of their propellant when firing. And they have an unfortunate tendency to explode years or decades later, leaving a pile of debris in a highly elliptical orbit. At least 54 SOZ engines have now exploded.” McDowell tweeted.
The newly exploded SOZ engine had raced around the Earth on a highly elliptical course, going up to 241 miles (388 kilometers) and up to 11,852 miles (19,074 kilometers), McDowell said in another tweetnoting that “the debris will take a while to re-enter”.
“So, this debris event was predictable and is well understood; still very unfortunate,” he wrote.
Space junk is a growing problem for satellite operators and mission planners. The Estimates from the European Space Agency (ESA). that approximately 36,500 pieces of debris at least 4 inches (10 centimeters) wide are currently zipping around the Earth. And Earth’s orbit is likely home to about 1 million objects with diameters between 0.4 inches and 4 inches (1 to 10 cm), according to ESA.
Russia added to the debris population with a anti-satellite test (ASAT) widely condemned in November 2021. The nation destroyed one of its dead satellites with a missile, generating a new debris field in the same orbital ward as the International Space Station (ISS). ISS operators had to burn engines to dodge Russian ASAT debris.
Mike Wall is the author of “Out there“(Grand Central Publishing, 2018; illustrated by Karl Tate), a book about the search for alien life. Follow him on Twitter @michaeldwall. Follow us on Twitter @Spacedotcom or turned on Facebook.