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NASA and Russian Satellites Have a Close Pass in Orbit

By Rachel Jewett | February 28, 2024

Artists rendering of NASA’s TIMED spacecraft. Photo: NASA

A NASA satellite and a Russian satellite had a close pass in orbit on Wednesday morning, one that LeoLabs called “too close for comfort.” 

NASA reported that the Department of Defense confirmed the NASA Thermosphere Ionosphere Mesosphere Energetics and Dynamics Mission (TIMED) spacecraft and the Russian Cosmos 2221 satellite passed each other safely in orbit at about 1:34 a.m. EST on Feb. 28.

“While the two non-maneuverable satellites will approach each other again, this was their closest pass in the current predicted orbit determinations, as they are gradually moving apart in altitude,” NASA said. 

The NASA satellite is operational and functioning, and the Russian satellite was not operational prior to the pass.  

According to space situational awareness firm LeoLabs, which tracks in-0rbit activity, the two satellites missed each other by less than 20 meters and had a 3% to 8% chance of collision. LeoLabs reported this was a rare event — in the last two years, there have been only six events with a miss distance of less than 20 meters between two intact, non-maneuverable objects. 

LeoLabs said that if the two satellites had collided, most likely one of the object’s solar arrays would clip the other object’s main body, which could have generated around 2,500 fragments.