Satellite Collision Could Bring an End to Hubble Telescope

Kaputnik chaos could kill Hubble
Nature News

A cloud of debris spreading through low Earth orbit following the collision of two satellites poses a new risk to many scientific missions and may signal the demise of the Hubble Space Telescope. NASA is monitoring the increased threat carefully, and if it is as bad as some fear, the agency may have to cancel the proposed shuttle-servicing mission slated for later this year. Without that mission, the telescope’s days are numbered, even if none of the new debris comes anywhere close to it.

The increased risk to astronauts in the International Space Station seems to be “relatively low”, according to Mark Matney, an orbital- debris specialist at the Johnson Space Center in Houston, Texas. But the collision puts in jeopardy a shuttle mission to repair the Hubble Space Telescope in May. The risk of impact for a mission to the space station is about 1 in 300, but for missions to the higher and more tilted orbit of Hubble the risk is greater. Even before last week’s collision, the added debris from the 2007 Chinese test had pushed up the Hubble mission’s risk of a catastrophic impact to 1 in 185. NASA’s usual limit on such risk is 1 in 200, so Matney describes the situation before last week as already being “uncomfortably close to unacceptable levels”. “This is only going to add on to that,” he says. Matney believes that the agency will know within a week or two whether the mission can go ahead.

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