In March, the U.S. Space Force’s 18th Space Control Squadron (18SPCS) reported the breakup of Yunhai 1-02, a Chinese military satellite that launched in September 2019. It was unclear at the time whether the spacecraft had suffered some sort of failure — an explosion in its propulsion system, perhaps — or if it had collided with something in orbit.
We now know that the latter explanation is correct, thanks to some sleuthing by astrophysicist and satellite tracker Jonathan McDowell, who’s based at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics in Cambridge, Massachusetts.
On Saturday (Aug. 14), McDowell spotted an update in the Space-Track.org catalog, which the 18SPCS makes available to registered users. The update included “a note for object 48078, 1996-051Q: ‘Collided with satellite.’ This is a new kind of comment entry — haven’t seen such a comment for any other satellites before,” McDowell tweeted on Saturday.
He dove into the tracking data to learn more. McDowell found that Object 48078 is a small piece of space junk — likely a piece of debris between 4 inches and 20 inches wide (10 to 50 centimeters) — from the Zenit-2 rocket that launched Russia’s Tselina-2 spy satellite in September 1996. Eight pieces of debris originating from that rocket have been tracked over the years, he said, but Object 48078 has just a single set of orbital data, which was collected in March of this year.
“I conclude that they probably only spotted it in the data after it collided with something, and that’s why there’s only one set of orbital data. So the collision probably happened shortly after the epoch of the orbit. What did it hit?” McDowell wrote in another Saturday tweet.
Read more – Space.com: https://bit.ly/3CUSWfQ