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Spacecraft to come ‘alarmingly close’ in orbit over Pittsburgh

LeoLabs tracking spacecraft in orbit

NASA's Infrared Astronomical Satellite, or IRAS was the first telescope in space to survey the sky in infrared light. (image credit: NASA JPL)
NASA's Infrared Astronomical Satellite, or IRAS was the first telescope in space to survey the sky in infrared light. (image credit: NASA JPL) (WKMG 2020)

Two spacecraft will pass “alarmingly close” in orbit Wednesday evening and have a chance of colliding above the Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania area.

Space tracking laboratory LeoLabs, Inc. in California is monitoring the two spacecraft—the IRAS, a decommissioned international space telescope that launched in 1983, and GGSE-4, an experimental U.S. payload that launched in 1967.

According to LeoLabs, the chance of collision is near 1 in 20, or 5%, and the spacecraft are predicted to miss crashing by a distance of 12 to 30 meters.

The close call will happen Wednesday at 6:39 p.m. ET about 560 miles above Pittsburgh, according to the laboratory.

If the spacecraft collide the event will create hundreds of pieces of debris in space. LeoLabs said it will be tracking any possible orbital debris.

“Though it is still unlikely that these objects will collide, we have tasked our radars to schedule longer duration tracking on both objects following the event to search for evidence of any new debris (and hopefully not find any!)” the lab said in a tweet.

According to NASA, there are millions of pieces of space junk in low-Earth orbit moving at speeds up seven times faster than a bullet.

There are no international space laws mandating clean up of debris or spacecraft in low-Earth orbit.

“Events like this highlight the need for responsible, timely deorbiting of satellites for space sustainability moving forward,” LeoLabs tweeted. “We will continue to monitor this event through the coming days and provide updates as available.”

Watch a simulation of the close call here. To see an active map of all the debris and active spacecraft in low-Earth orbit, click here.


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