An out-of-commission Russian satellite and a discarded Chinese rocket orbiting the Earth more than 600 miles above the surface have a ‘very high risk’ of colliding tonight.
LeoLabs, a firm that tracks space debris, reveals these objects are likely to pass less than 40 feet from each other, and shared a model that shows a 10 per cent chance of the two smashing into each other at 20:56 ET on Thursday (01:56 BST Friday) just above Antarctica.
The objects have a combined mass of 2.8 metric tons, and the impact would add thousands of pieces of space junk – anywhere from 10 percent to 20 percent more debris – to the 170 million currently floating in orbit.
The speed of the collision between the Russian Kosmos-2004 satellite and the Chinese Chang Zheng 4C rocket would be around 14.7km per second (32,882 miles per hour), LeoLabs estimates.
Although there is no threat to people on Earth, the man-made materials would pose a significant risk to functioning satellites in orbit.
'This event continues to be very high risk and will likely stay this way through the time of closest approach,' LeoLabs said in a tweet.
Astronomer Jonathan McDowell weighed in on the event with a model prediction.
The image shows the Russian Kosmos-2004 moving towards the southern poles and the Chinese Chang Zheng 4C heading north over the Falklands.
The predicted paths also suggest the two could eventually meet head on over Antarctica.
McDowell also notes that the two items breaking apart during impact will add 10 to 20 percent more space junk into orbit.
Auckland University physics professor Richard Easther told Stuff that the collision would leave 'lots and lots of uncontrollable pieces of debris'.
'It's going to leave a mess... any resulting debris would continue travelling in orbit at high speed,' he said.
The pieces would be moving at speeds of around 17,000 miles an hour (28,000 km an hour), which is faster than a bullet, he added.
However, the Aerospace Corporation, based in California, calculated a much lower chance of collision – one in 250,000 million.
'I don't mean to throw any shade whatsoever on [LeoLabs'] process or their sensors or anything else,' Ted Muelhaupt at the Aerospace Corporation told Business Insider.
'But the sensors, the data we have access to says we're pretty confident [the satellites] are not going to hit.'
A report released in May shows Russia is responsible for the majority of space junk floating in orbit – accounting for some 14,403 pieces in total.
These include the upper stage of a type of rocket known as a space tug, called Fregat-SB, which was used to launch a scientific radio telescope, called Spektr-R, into space in 2011.
Fregat-SB was left floating after it delivered Spektr-R, and broke apart on May 8 somewhere above the Indian Ocean after nine years in orbit, leaving dozens of pieces of debris around Earth, according to Roscosmos.
Spektr-R stopped responding to ground control last year and was declared dead in May 2019.
These pieces can destroy satellites, telescopes and spacecraft, and one NASA scientist fears they could eventually create the 'Kessler syndrome'.
This is a theoretical scenario, proposed by NASA scientist Donald Kessler in 1978, in which the density of objects in low-Earth orbit is high enough that collisions between objects cause a cascade, in which each collision generates space debris that increases the likelihood of further collisions.
It could even reach the point that it is dangerous for humans to venture off the planet.
A recent study has proposed a way to limit the number of satellites in space to help decrease the growing space debris problem.
Researchers from the University of Colorado Boulder say an international agreement would be needed in order to charge operators 'orbital use fees' for every device launched into orbit.
The amount charged would increase each year to 2040 up to $235,000, according to the team, who say the orbit becomes clearer each year, reducing the risk costs.