Fixed image of March 27th showing individual pieces of fragmented U.S. rocket stage detected for tagging and identification.
Credit: Deimos Sky Survey


A discarded upper stage from a rocket launched nearly a decade ago has fragmented, adding to ongoing growth of orbital debris encircling Earth.

The large Atlas V Centaur upper stage, for an as-yet-unknown reason, broke up between March 23 – March 25.

At a recent meeting of space debris specialists, Vladimir Agapov of Keldysh Institute of Applied Mathematics unveiled the fragmentation event of object 2009-047B, estimated to have taken place on March 25th.

Crumbling culprit: Atlas V Centaur upper stage.
Credit: NASA/Roy Allison

2009-047B is the second stage of the Atlas V launcher which put in orbit USA 207, an American military communications satellite on September 8, 2009.

Detailed images

Just hours after learning of the breakup, the Zimmerwald Observatory in Switzerland scheduled immediate observations of the cloud of fragments, and by March 26 had acquired the first views.

Deimos Sky Survey observatory.
Credit: Elecnor Deimos Sky Survey


Also following the announcement, the Deimos Sky Survey observatory provided detailed images of the central body and between 40 and 60 fragments larger than 30 centimeters in size.

Deimos Sky Survey (DeSS) is an advanced complex in Spain equipped with the latest technology for the observation (surveillance and tracking) and catalog of near-Earth space objects. These objects can be natural, such as near asteroids also known as NEOs (Near Earth Objects), or human-made, like satellites and space debris.

Results of the Elecnor Deimos Space Situational Awareness (SSA) team analyses, — such as the expected evolution of the fragments cloud around the Earth or the spatial density at different altitudes and timeframe — are being shared with the space surveillance and tracking international community.

In-orbit explosions can be related to the mixing of residual fuel that remain in tanks or fuel lines once a rocket stage or satellite is discarded in Earth orbit. The resulting explosion can destroy the object and spread its mass across numerous fragments with a wide spectrum of masses and imparted speeds.
Credit: ESA

Technological trash

“Leaving a trail of debris in its wake, this fragmentation event provides space debris experts with a rare opportunity to test their understanding of such hugely important processes,” explains Tim Flohrer, a European Space Agency (ESA) senior space debris monitoring expert in an ESA statement.

Fragmentation events like this one – either break ups or collisions – are the primary source of debris objects in space in the range of a few millimeters to tens of centimeters in size.

Travelling at high speeds, these bits of “technological trash” pose a threat to crucial space infrastructure, such as satellites providing weather and navigation services – including astronauts aboard the International Space Station, the ESA statement points out.

Video captured by the Deimos Sky Survey in Spain showing the stream of newly-made debris objects as they rush across the sky:


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