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Swarm - ESA teams respond to debris risk

24 January 2017

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For the past few days, experts from ESA's Space Debris Office at ESOC in Darmstadt, Germany, have been assessing a conjunction (read: collision) forecast issued by the US armed forces' Joint Space Operations Center (JSpOC) located at Vandenberg Air Force base in California.

JSpOC receive data from the American space tracking radars and telescopes, among other sources, and through a long-standing data-sharing agreement, alert ESA whenever a conjunction involving one of our missions appears possible.

Space debris are now one of the principle threats to orbiting satellites. We estimate that an ever-increasing cloud of more than 750,000 dangerous debris objects larger than 1 cm are in Earth orbit with the potential to damage or destroy intact satellites, creating yet more fragments.

JSpOC has identified a close approach for Swarm-B forecast to occur on 25 January at 23:10:55 UTC, which will be 00:10:55 CET on 26 January. The forecast miss distance is just 361 m, and this triggers a risk above the 1/10,000 risk threshold.

The Space Debris team are now waiting for updated predictions from JSpOC late today. In the meanwhile, the flight control team and flight dynamics specialists are starting to plan a collision avoidance manoeuvre (CAM), which, if deemed necessary, will have to be conducted within the next 36 hours.

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