Space: What Were The Russians Doing?


March 13, 2011: On March 7th, a Russian military communications satellite, the Raduga 1-7, was detected moving within 3,000 meters of a South Korean weather-communications satellite (Cheollian). South Korea was unable to get the Russians to respond about this unannounced movement, and quickly moved the Cheollian to another orbit 120 kilometers from the Russian bird, just to be safe. The Russian satellite kept moving, and came close to two other satellites (both Japanese), which also had to move. The Russians continued to ignore Korean and Japanese requests for information. A geostationary orbit is not supposed to be subject to collisions. That's because these orbits are very high (36,000 kilometers) so that the satellite rotates in sync with the earth, thus staying over the same point below on earth. It costs about twice as much to put satellites into these higher orbits, and there's a lot more room out there. So there should be less risk of collision. What were the Russians doing?

Nations that launch satellites into geostationary orbits are supposed to inform each other of what they have where, to avoid collisions when inserting  new geostationary satellites into orbit. While the Russians stonewalled everyone for a while, they eventually reported that their satellite got into some kind of trouble with its orbital maneuvering engines and had left its orbit, and that the problem was being worked on. Still, it's considered bad manners to remain silent about such matters. The Raduga 1-7 was launched two years ago, and should still be in service. This sort of mess apparently arose when the Russians were trying to move Raduga 1-7 to another orbit, and something went wrong with the small rockets on the satellite.

There are some 900 active satellites in orbit, and nearly half of them are American. About 75 percent of all satellites are non-military (most of them commercial, the rest government non-military birds.) The Russian Sputnik was the first satellite ever put in orbit, in 1957. The U.S. followed in 1958. Since then, eight other nations  have done the same. Ukraine was the last to do so, in 1995. Israel launched its first satellite in 1988. France launched its first satellite in 1965, Japan and China in 1970, Britain in 1971, and India in 1980. Iran put a (27 kg/60 pound) satellite into orbit two years ago, although that one fell back into the atmosphere after seven weeks and burned up.


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