European Space Agency's Solar Orbiter made one of the riskiest planetary flybys ever as it skimmed close to the Earth’s atmosphere overnight to “burn off” surplus energy in order to line up its trajectory for six orbits of Venus.
The carefully-calculated final gravity assists have been planned to bring Solar Orbiter on course to capture the first-ever direct images images of The Sun’s north and south poles.
But as Solar Obiter came within 285 miles of our home planet it risked a collision with the huge cloud of space junk surrounding the Earth.
The danger of space junk is significant, and growing. Russia added to the problem just last week by testing an anti-satellite weapon on the defunct Cosmos 1408 satellite.
Astronauts on the International Space Station needed to take evasive action earlier this week as the unpredictable cloud of metal fragments whizzed around the Earth at some 18,000mph.
A NASA statement read: ”US Space Command is aware of a debris-generating event in outer space. We are actively working to characterise the debris field and will continue to ensure all space-faring nations have the information necessary to manoeuvre satellites if impacted," the agency said.
The threat of a space junk strike is dramatically depicted in 1993 movie Gravity, which showed George Clooney and Sandra Bullock dealing with aftermath of the destruction of a Space Shuttle.
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While the risk to Solar Orbiter during its upcoming Earth flyby is considered small, according to the European Space Agency it’s still “non-zero”.
Anti-satellite weapons are significantly adding to the space junk threat. In January 2007, for example, China deliberately targeted one of its own weather satellites with a “kinetic kill vehicle” as a test of potential space weapons capability.
There are known to be at least 27,000 pieces of orbital debris potentially hazardous metal fragments measuring four inches or more, and NASA Orbital Debris Program Office estimated that at least a third of those objects would still be in orbit in 2035.
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