Rocket Stage Launched 10 Years Ago Disintegrates into Trail of Space Junk (Video)

Space.com | 4/17/2019 | Mindy Weisberger
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A spent rocket stage that had been orbiting Earth since 2009 recently broke into bits, and an observatory in Spain captured footage of the new debris cloud as it traveled across a backdrop of stars.

The Deimos Sky Survey (DeSS), an astronomy complex in Madrid dedicated to detecting and evaluating the risk from near-Earth objects, spotted and recorded the unusual appearance of new space junk in the sky from March 26 to 28, the European Space Agency (ESA) said in a statement. Scientists used the observatory's "Antsy" optical sensor, "which is adapted for tracking objects in low-Earth orbit," according to the ESA.

Pieces - Debris - Cloud - Inches - Centimeters

About 40 to 60 pieces have been identified in the debris cloud, and many of them exceed 12 inches (30 centimeters) in diameter, the ESA reported.

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Astronomers - Debris - Colleagues - Sighting - March

Russian astronomers discovered the debris and informed their European colleagues about the sighting on March 26 at a meeting of the International Academy of Astronautics (IAA), according to DeSS. Experts determined that the cloud of space junk was formerly an Atlas V Centaur rocket, which launched on Sept. 9, 2009, bearing a U.S. communications satellite.

After the rocket's upper stage separated, the cylinder — measuring about 41 feet (12.5 meters) in length and weighing approximately 2 tons — settled into a stable orbit, where it could have remained "for centuries," DeSS reported.

Rocket - March - Cause - Breakup - ESA

But the discarded rocket disintegrated sometime between March 23 and 25, though the cause of its breakup is still unknown, according to the ESA.

"Leaving a trail of debris...
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