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  • An analysis of recent major breakups in the low Earth orbit region

    Paper number



    Dr. J.-C. Liou, National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), United States


    Dr. Phillip Anz-Meador, ESCG/Jacobs, United States



    Of the 190 known satellite breakups between 1961 and 2006, only one generated more than 500 cataloged fragments.  The event was the explosion of the Pegasus Hydrazine Auxiliary Propulsion System in 1996, adding 713 fragments to the U.S. Satellite Catalog. Since the beginning of 2007; however, the near-Earth environment has been subjected to several major breakups, including the Fengyun-1C anti-satellite test and the explosion of Briz-M in 2007, the unusual breakup of Cosmos 2421 in 2008, and the collision between Iridium 33 and Cosmos 2251 in 2009. Combined, these events added more than 5000 large (≥10 cm) fragments to the environment.
    Detailed analysis of the radar cross section measurements and orbit histories of the fragments from these major events reveals several unusual characteristics in their size and area-to-mass ratio distributions. The characteristics could be related to the material composition of the parent vehicles, the nature of the breakup, and the composition and physical property of the fragments. In addition, the majority of these fragments are expected to remain in orbit for at least decades. Their long-term impact to the environment is analyzed using the NASA orbital debris evolutionary model, LEGEND. Descriptions of these analyses and a summary are included in this paper.
    Abstract document


    Manuscript document