ABOUT    An interdisciplinary research and visual art project,  investigating the visibility of orbital debris.

ARTIST      Isabella Ong
CURATOR   Seet Yun Teng


ABOUT    An interdisciplinary research and visual art project,  investigating the visibility of orbital debris.

ARTIST      Isabella Ong
CURATOR   Seet Yun Teng

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Significant Space Debris Events

Last update: 13 Feb 2022

2024 Cargo Pallet Re-Entry

On 8 Mar, a 2.9-ton cargo pallet of used batteries from the International Space Station re-entered Earth’s atmosphere over the Gulf of Mexico after three years of uncontrolled descent. 

It had been tossed by a robotic arm in March 2021 and has since been tumbling towards Earth in an uncontrolled re-entry. It is the largest object ever thrown out of the ISS.

2022 Long March Rocket Break-up

On 12 Nov, the Chinese government confirmed that a spent Long March 6A rocket belonging to China broke up and scattered debris in a near-Earth orbit close to many of SpaceX’s Starlink satellites. It is unclear what caused the rocket to break up.

The rocket was between 500 to 700 km (310 to 435 miles) from Earth when it disintegrated into more than 50 fragments.

2022 SpaceX debris in NSW, Australia

On 9 Jul, a SpaceX spacecraft re-entered the Earth’s atmosphere after its launch in Nov 2020. Debris was found by sheep farmers Mick Miners and Jock Wallace on their farms in southern New South Wales, Australia.

Since the finding of the first two pieces of debris, a third piece has been found further west. The Australian Space Agency has confirmed it belongs to the SpaceX mission and are in discussions with SpaceX on its return.

2021 Kosmos 1408

On 15 Nov, Russia carried out an anti-satellite weapon test on its defunct Tselina-D spysat that had launched into orbit in 1982. It resulted in a debris cloud that posed a threat to the crew of the International Space Station (ISS), who had to take shelter in their escape capsules for the first few passes of the debris cloud.

The storm cloud of debris in orbits between 300 and 1,100 km (190 and 680 miles) above earth, according to some estimates, generated 1,500 chunks of junk big enough to be tracked.

2021 Yunhai-1 (02) satellite break-up 

On 18 Mar, Chinese satellite Yunhai-1 (02) suffered a break-up event. U.S. space tracking has identified the break-up to an accidental collision with a small, mission-related piece of debris (1996-051Q) associated with a Russian Cosmos 2333 military signals intelligence satellite in 1996.

It is the fifth confirmed accidental collision between two catalogued objects. A total of 37 fragments from the collision have been catalogued and as of 1 Oct 2021, four of these have re-entered the atmosphere.

2018-2019 Atlas V Centaur Fragmentation

In 30 Aug 2018 (14055B), 24 Mar 2019 (09047B) & 6 Apr 2019 (18079B), three fragmentation events including Atlas V Centaur upper stages took place. Initial catalogues recorded 51 fragments; however it became apparent that the orbital information that is publicly available from USSTRATCOM is insufficient to characterize the events.

The Astronomical Institute of the University of Bern (AIUB) has closely observed all three events. In a recent study, the obtained orbital data includes osculating states and associated uncertainties of 676, 725, and 907 fragments respectively for 14055B, 09047B, and 18079B.

2009 Kosmos-Iridium Collision

On 10 Feb, Kosmos-2251, a defunct Russian Strela-2M military communications satellite, collided with Iridum 33, an operational communications satellite, destroying it and becoming the second biggest fragmentation event in history.

Produced 1,668 & 628 pieces of catalogued debris each, of which 1,141 and 364 pieces of tracked debris remain in orbit as of January 2016.

2007 Fengyun-1C

On 11 Jan, China intentionally destroyed A Chinese weather satellite Fengyun-1C in an anti-satellite test, with a kinetic kill vehicle traveling with a speed of 8 km/s (18,000 mph) in the opposite direction.

The resulting collision was the largest creation of space debris in history, producing a debris cloud of over 2,000 pieces of trackable size (golf ball size and larger) officially catalogued in the immediate aftermath, and an estimated 150,000 debris particles. Some analyses have suggested that this debris has increased the object density in the sun-synchronous orbital regime above the criteria for the Kessler Syndrome, i.e., the density at which a cascade of continuing collisions and additional debris generation will ensue.

As of October 2016, a total of 3,438 pieces of debris had been detected, with 571 decayed and 2,867 still in orbit nine years after the incident. More than half of the tracked debris orbits the Earth with a mean altitude above 850 kilometres (530 mi), so they would likely remain in orbit for decades or centuries. Based on 2009 and 2013 calculations of solar flux, the NASA Orbital Debris Program Office estimated that around 30% of the larger-than-10-centimeter (3.9 in) debris would still be in orbit in 2035.

1979 Skylab Re-Entry

On 11 Jul, Skylab, the first U.S. space station, crashed back onto Earth in Western Australia. Skylab was designed to be an orbiting workshop with a 9-year lifespan, but NASA failed to build in any control or navigation mechanisms to return the orbiter to Earth. This proved to be a problem in late 1978, when NASA enginners discovered the station’s orbit was decaying rapidly due to increased drag from solar activity. Initially, NASA could not specify when or where Skylab would come down, though the agency mapped out a potential debris field that spanned about 7,400 kilometers across the Indian Ocean and Australia. 

“In its re-entry […] the disembodied spacecraft became tangible, visible, and collectible, in the form of its widely scattered and charred remains. Anyone could own a piece of space if they wanted; the debris was both space junk and a precious artifact,” wrote space archaeologist Alice Gorman in a 2011 paper. “The social significance of Skylab came to outweigh its historic significance and it passed into popular consciousness as a rare Australian space icon.”

1978 Kosmos 954 Re-Entry

On 24 Jan, Russian nuclear-powered reconnaissance satellite Kosmos 954 maulfunctioned and re-entered the Earth’s atmosphere, scattering radioactive debris over nothern Canada.

This prompted an extensive multi-year cleanup operation known as Operation Morning Light, and prompted a worldwide search for information on derelict satellites and awareness around hazards in space.

1961–1963 Project Needles (Westford Needles)

A test carried out by MIT’s Lincoln Laboratory on behalf of the U. S. military to create an artificial ionosphere above the Earth, to serve as a means of communication in the event of the Soviets cutting submarine communications cables. To mitigate the potential threat, a ring of 480,000,000 copper dipole antennas were placed in medium Earth orbit. British radio astronomers, together with optical astronomers and the Royal Astronomical Society, protested the action. The international protest ultimately resulted in a consultation provision included in the 1967 Outer Space Treaty.

Fifty years later, in 2013, some of the dipoles that had not deployed correctly still remained in clumps, contributing a small amount of the orbital debris tracked by NASA’s Orbital Debris Program Office. Their numbers have been diminishing over time as they occasionally re-enter. As of March 2020, 36 clumps of needles were still known to be in orbit.
A 2001 report by the European Space Agency suggests that because the 1961 payload failed to disperse, thousands more clusters could have been deployed, and several may be too small to track.

1962 Transit Research and Attitude Control (TRAAC)

Launched on 15 Nov by the U. S. Navy from Cape Canaveral, it was among several satellites which were inadvertently damaged or destroyed by the Starfish Prime high-altitude nuclear test on July 9, 1962 and subsequent radiation belt.

The first poem to be launched into orbit about the Earth was inscribed on the instrument panel of TRAAC. Entitled Space Prober and written by Prof. Thomas G. Bergin of Yale University, it reads in part:

And now 'tis man who dares assault the sky...

And as we come to claim our promised place, aim only to repay the good you gave,

And warm with human love the chill of space.

Expected to orbit for 800 years at an altitude of about 950 kilometers (590 mi).

1960 “Cuban Cash Cow”

On Nov 30, the United States Navy launched a Thor rocket from Cape Canaveral, Florida, carrying 3 satellites destined for orbit. Following an anomaly at the end of the flight, the range safety oficer sent a self-destruct signal that destroyed the rocket and its payload. However, several large fragments survived the explosion and fell through the atmosphere back to Earth. The Cuban government broadcasted reports of shrapnel raining from the sky, striking and killing an unlucky cow in Oriente Province. American sources claimed that the cow had merely been injured.

In the weeks that followed, the U.S. Department of State agreed to pay the Cuban government damages to the tune of two million dollars—quite a lot of money to replace a cow. This inspired critics to call the event “the Cuban Cash Cow” and the “herd shot round the world.” Castro threatened to hand the rocket fragments over to the Kremlin for intelligence use. The cow is said to have received a state burial.

1958 The Oldest Human-Made Object Still in Space

Launched into space on March 17, Vanguard 1 was America’s second Earth-orbiting satellite. It stopped communicating with Earth in 1964, but more than 60 years later, it still remains in orbit.

The size of a grapefruit, Vanguard 1 is humanity’s first piece of space archaeology.

Isabella Ong
Seet Yun Teng
National Arts Council Singapore