If two satellites from two different nations were to collide together due to poor planning on the behalf of one of the nations what would be the protocol? For instance, Russia launches a probe into space, but the USA wasn't aware of it, then launched the same day in the same orbital path. The Russian satellite was "filed" (I'm unsure of the system of filing flight plans inter-nationally, but I know there is one) but someone in the USA government didn't check and placed something in their planned flight path, destroying the relay. Kind of curious about the non-negligent version too, what if a software malfunction caused a pathing algorithm to misadjust?

What would become of this? Are there any major instances of this occurring? More specifically concerned with launch-related issues. (As in the crash occurs soon after launch, E.G. an example with the collision soon after launch, having the least amount of elapsed mission time). Obviously this has an inordinately low change of occurring, just curious if it has.

  • $\begingroup$ Related Question. $\endgroup$ Apr 2 '18 at 20:17
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    $\begingroup$ Interesting question. Analogous to a road vehicle collision - two parties, each operating their respective vehicles which for some reason come into collision; there is determination of fault, and application of some sort of remedy, financial or otherwise. What happens when the vehicles are orbiting spacecraft and the operators are national agencies or large corporations? $\endgroup$
    – Anthony X
    Apr 3 '18 at 2:50
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    $\begingroup$ step 1: say my username. $\endgroup$
    – uhoh
    Apr 3 '18 at 6:37
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    $\begingroup$ Leave rapidly in different directions. Multiple different directions... :-) $\endgroup$
    – Rory Alsop
    Apr 3 '18 at 8:29
  • $\begingroup$ @AnthonyX this was the focus I wanted :). $\endgroup$ Apr 4 '18 at 14:20

The main people who oversee this (at least in the US) is the Joint Space Operations Center (JSpOC), From Wikipedia:

The purpose of the JSpOC is to provide a focal point for the operational employment of worldwide joint space forces and enable the Commander of JFCC SPACE (CDR JFCC SPACE) to integrate space power into global military operations. The JSpOC is located at Vandenberg Air Force Base in California and is the organization responsible for performing all of the orbit determination activity necessary to maintain the US space catalog.

One of the primary missions of JSpOC is to track everything in space, using the Space Surveillance Network (SSN), a worldwide network of 30 space surveillance sensors. They advertise that they can reliably track objects down to 10cm in size (it is postulated that they have the capability to track smaller objects). Part of their tracking mission is to inform satellite operators and launch providers about possible collisions from vehicles to be launched as well as every day as debris and satellites circle the earth.

Per the USSTRATCOM page on the JSpOC:

On a routine basis, the JSpOC conducts conjunction analysis for all active spacecraft. During human space flight launches, the center computes possible close approaches of other orbiting objects with the flight path of the Soyuz and the International Space Station (ISS). The JSpOC constructs a theoretical box around a high-interest object, (e.g. the ISS) and projects the flight path several days in advance of the launch. If any of the cataloged objects intersect this theoretical box, the JSpOC forwards the analysis to NASA. NASA makes the determination whether or not to change the flight path of the ISS. NASA offers to the general public, on its website, the opportunity to track various satellites.

In the past, there has been only one collision between two satellite in orbit that I am aware of, it is referred to as the 2009 satellite collision it was between Iridium 33 and Kosmos-2251, a US civilian communications satellite and a Russian military communications satellite. It released a ton of debris into orbit as the hit one another at 42,120 km/h.

Here is an image of the tracked debris cloud after 50 minutes:

Debris fields after 50 minutes

Rlandmann CC BY-SA 3.0

  • $\begingroup$ Odd... it mentions literally nothing about political fallout. I guess sweeping money under the rug is easier with big nations. $\endgroup$ Apr 3 '18 at 4:16
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    $\begingroup$ @MagicOctopusUrn close calls happen all the time, this time they were just unlucky, see Is 75 meters an exceptionally close distance for two satellites to pass at >6,000 m/s? $\endgroup$
    – Mark Omo
    Apr 3 '18 at 4:20
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    $\begingroup$ I never saw this comment, but looking at my window at the car across the street, it's 75 meters away from me, more or less... No... I would not want that passing my home that close with such amazing speed. That's intensely interesting. $\endgroup$ Aug 2 '18 at 20:40
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    $\begingroup$ @MagicOctopusUrn no fallout because there isn't really anyone responsible for this. It's just a failure to predict/bad luck. No need to fantasize about sweeping money... $\endgroup$
    – Antzi
    Nov 14 '18 at 2:09
  • $\begingroup$ fyi I've asked Why does this satellite collision debris field look like a big “X”? though it now seems the answer was not as much of a mystery as I'd thought. $\endgroup$
    – uhoh
    Apr 18 '19 at 10:58

@Mark Omo does a good job answering who tracks these sorts of things and what the results are for the most well known case. But as to your main question:

If two satellites from two different nations were to collide together due to poor planning on the behalf of one of the nations what would be the protocol?

Answer: Sigh heavily and track the debris. Of course, if you are a party to the collision (as a nation) you might be liable for damages, but I would be interested to see how an actual grievance would be settled when the liable party is likely one or more super powers. International law is weird (or maybe not so weird) like that.


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