back to article Russia admits, yup, the Americans are right: One of our rocket's tanks just disintegrated in Earth's orbit

Russian rocket tanks used to launch a radio telescope have broken up into 65 chunks, littering Earth’s orbit with debris. The tanks, dumped from the Fregat-SB upper stage of the Zenit-3SLBF rocket that took the Spektr-R radio telescope into orbit in 2011, disintegrated on Friday, Roscosmos said on Sunday. “According to reports …

  1. John Jennings

    Honest question....

    How does this increase the cost of sattelites in geostationary orbit (mentioned in the article)? Geo orbit is 36,000 KM up. Low earth orbit (LEO), I can understand. I would also be surprised if the rapid dissambley was anything other than a strike - why else would it disintegrate (wether it was natural or not).

    1. Saruman the White Silver badge

      Re: Honest question....

      Generally satellites destined for GEO are initially launched into LEO, then (once everything is checked out) moved to a transfer orbit before finally ending up in its GEO slot. A GEO satellite can spend up to 2 weeks in LEO, sometimes longer if there is a problem, hence the increased risk.

      1. Steve Todd

        Re: Honest question....

        Actually GEO satellites are delivered to a GTO, an elliptical orbit roughly between LEO and GEO. They then expend fuel at the top of the orbit to raise and circularise this (expecting the satellite to raise from a circular LEO orbit would be too expensive in fuel). Once on station they use a small amount of fuel per year to hold position, before using their remaining fuel to boost them up to a graveyard orbit at end-of-life. If there’s an issue with the satellite during the GTO phase then all it needs to do is alter its orbit so that it grazes the atmosphere each time. It should then burn up by itself.

        The problem with this case is that the launch vehicle was empty of fuel once the satellite was in GTO. You need a larger, more expensive rocket which has enough capacity to deliver the satellite payload to GTO, then dispose of its self by changing orbit to either burn up or park out of the way of anything else in a graveyard orbit.

        1. Alan Brown Silver badge

          Re: Honest question....

          "The problem with this case is that the launch vehicle was empty of fuel once the satellite was in GTO."

          They're _supposed_ to be put into GTO so that the booster ends up atmosphere-grazing - that way if everything goes pear shaped before separation then it will all come down quickly.

          The russians fucked this up in more ways than one. Exploding fuel tanks are a known issue on orbiting leftovers and why protocol on western launchers/boosters which can't be left in atmosphere-grazing orbits is to open all valves and vent EVERYTHING at the end of the mission

        2. Wzrd1

          Re: Honest question....

          The question is, was there a venting failure and eventual failure of the pressurized component or excessive spin? Because after those two, the next most probable cause of RUD is impact.

          1. bombastic bob Silver badge

            Re: Honest question....

            Reminds me of something from the Navy: "Sweepers, man your brooms"

            Or in this case, similar styled satellites. We're gonna need them.

            /me wonders if you could string a net of some kind between 2 of them, made of some kind of carbon fiber with high tensile strength and low mass

    2. 96percentchimp

      Re: Honest question....

      Most GEO satellites are pushed into a higher graveyard orbit at end of life, where they'll remain for a long time, but space is a hostile environment and occasionally they die before the operator can make them safe. So-called 'zomebie' sats roam in and out of GEO on increasingly inclined orbits that can be a risk to operational sats.

      The rocket breakup didn't have to be caused by a collision: any spacecraft with fuel on board and no-one controlling it is basically a bomb going through regular cycles of thermal extremes that degrade pressure vessels, and radiation that can make cause sparks in defunct circuits. If it doesn't fall back to Erath or get hit by something else, chances are it will go boom one day.

  2. Michael H.F. Wilkinson

    Elon Musk isn't helping, is he

    Recently saw several of his swarms fly by. Quite apart from being annoying to astronomers, crowding LEO with loads of little satellites make the issues of space debris much worse, as the likelihood of collisions increases rapidly. Fewer, bigger satellites are much easier to manage (also not trivial) than swarms of little ones. Space may be big (you might think it's a long way to the chemist, but that's peanuts to space), but we only have a little speck of it, surrounding our pale blue dot, at our disposal.

    1. HamsterNet

      Re: Elon Musk isn't helping, is he

      Let’s educate you a little, or try

      Starlink sits in very low earth orbit, below the operational height of almost all other sats.

      Due to this low orbit, sats fall back to earth within 5 year max for the high test ones and with 3 months at launch orbits even if they lose all power. This is also the reason nobody else is using these orbits, the atmospheric drag is large at this altitude.

      As for observations, when starship flys it will be cheaper to Launch a telescope into orbit than to ship it up a remote mountain. Telescopes should be in space and not below 100km of atmosphere.

      1. Paul Kinsler

        Re: Telescopes should be in space and not below 100km of atmosphere.

        Telescope should be put where the cost/performance tradeoffs work out best - and space is an incredibly expensive and difficult place to put things. It's instructive to compare the history of the James Webb with the current slew of ground based adaptive optics giant telescopes (see e.g. As with many things, there is no simple answer to space-vs-ground telescopes.

        1. PerlyKing

          Re: Telescope should be put where the cost/performance tradeoffs work out best

          The point is that if Starship works out (which it probably will, as Musk seems to have the money and determination to do it), it will drastically change the cost of putting things into orbit. And also make it easier to launch larger items - a lot of the problems with the JWST are to do with having to fold it up into a small fairing for launch and then get it to unfold itself.

        2. Alan Brown Silver badge

          Re: Telescopes should be in space and not below 100km of atmosphere.

          "It's instructive to compare the history of the James Webb "

          The problem with spacecraft is that launchers are sodding expensive.

          Which means you only get one launch and one spacecraft, (and maybe a backup if the first goes bang)

          Which means you heavily invest in making sure your spacecraft works

          And also means that you add every bell and whistle you can think of to your spacecraft, because you only have one launch

          Which puts up the launch mass and complexity

          Which means you need to invest even more heavily in making sure your spacecraft works

          Which means you build hundreds - if not thousands - of test articles

          Which means in the end, your spacecraft is valued in $billions, but only has an actual materials cost of a few million - and you have a backup in case it didn't fly - and if you wanted to build several of them you'd be able to without even making much dent in the project budget

          Except that doesn't happen

          Because space launches are primarily a dick^H^H^H^Hflag-waving exercise and the science is in a distant second place by comparison to the "Gee, aren't we great!" behaviour when the thing is launched.

          And space launches are like that because they're so sodding expensive.

          Cheaper launches means simpler payloads are more easily justified, and really cheap launches means you can even afford to send up a dud occasionally without it being a career-ending move.

          And it might even mean that development moves fast enough that a mission might actually take less than someone's entire career from first concept to actual use in space (seriously - taking 20-25 years from inception to launch is par for the course. There are several spacecraft sitting around that were completed and have been waiting to be launched for 20+ years, thanks to "funding issues" that cropped up along the way.)

          James Webb is a good example of old-school thinking. It's big but hideously complicated because it was _too big_ for any existing launcher when first designed. The fact that better/bigger launchers now exist hasn't caused a redesign, but a redesigned JW might be flyable sooner because the single most problematic part of it is the sunshade and those problems are vastly reduced if you can have more launch mass and/or payload volume to work with. (The foldout mirror wings is another issue but not as problematic as the sunshade)

          With something the size of starship, at the price of starship you could launch something like JW in two parts (instrument and sunshade/spacecraft) mate them in orbit and send them out to L5 with a tug sent up on a 3rd launch and STILL have change leftover from the cost of the original project.

      2. BinkyTheHorse

        Re: Elon Musk isn't helping, is he

        To recapitulate:

        a) any existing observatories should be abandoned and millions spent on moving that infrastructure into orbit - because, as we all know, science is not criminally undervalued in modern times anywhere in the world and always receives adequate funding;

        b) all scientists should now rely on His Muskyness and other US-based launcher companies, regardless of not only their budgets, but availability, subject to trade and technology embargoes (maybe this is news to you, but not all people in countries the US has embargoes on are evil) ;

        c) similarly, enthusiasts should either crowdsource money for their own space telescopes or just live with Elon's space grafitti. Because there is no value in the sense of wonder produced by tangibly observing space at one's convenience, and definitely not in inspiring the next generation of scientists.

        Techbroism is rare here on El Reg forums, but when it shows, oh boy how does it show.

        1. tip pc Silver badge

          Re: Elon Musk isn't helping, is he

          wtf is Techbroism?

          1. This post has been deleted by its author

            1. Anonymous Coward
              Anonymous Coward

              Re: Elon Musk isn't helping, is he

              Women, on the other hand, always seek Raymond Berenger's permission before they do anything.

              1. This post has been deleted by its author

            2. Pat Att

              Re: Elon Musk isn't helping, is he

              Downvoted for the irrelevant sexism.

              1. This post has been deleted by its author

        2. Adrian Midgley 1

          Wonder and satellites

          Theres value to looking up and seeing satellites.

      3. Doctor Syntax Silver badge

        Re: Elon Musk isn't helping, is he

        "when starship flys"

        Providing it can get through the litter layer unscathed.

        1. eldakka Silver badge

          Re: Elon Musk isn't helping, is he

          Maybe the first few starships sent up should be converted into Sanitation Cruisers?

      4. Michael H.F. Wilkinson

        Re: Elon Musk isn't helping, is he

        As someone working on remote sensing imaging I am well aware of the different orbits. Despite this, crowding lower orbits with tens of thousands of satellites (not just the starlink swarm) will add to risks

        1. IGotOut Silver badge

          Re: Elon Musk isn't helping, is he

          "as Musk seems to have the money and determination to do it"


          "As Musk seems to have the money, arrogance and utter disregard for others to do it"


      5. Paul Crawford Silver badge

        Re: Elon Musk isn't helping, is he

        Sadly Starlink will not be all at very low orbit, the ones at 1300km (and thier inevitable debris) will be hanging around for many centuries.

      6. Wzrd1

        Re: Elon Musk isn't helping, is he

        Let’s educate you a little, or try


        OK, first off, lifting anything into space will never be less expensive than dragging something about in a truck. Ever. Rockets are always going to be more expensive than ground transportation, regardless of your conditioned response.

        Second, earth orbit is a good second best, but putting a telescope on the moon would be far superior, but obscenely expensive.

        Still, if you want to put a telescope into space, since it's as cheap as trucking the contents of a home up a mountain, announce to us all when you've paid for a space telescope by yourself. People move all the time, so it'll be a snap for you to do it.

        I'll wait until proton decay, as I know how expensive space really is, as physics doesn't yield to business hype, business yields to physics or fail. Always.

        BTW, I tend to take anything said by Musk with a grain of salt the size of Gibraltar. Especially given his recent antics, expressed desire to flout the law and well, the general incompetence in sending CPAP machines and calling them respirators (the old name lay people used for ventilators).

        I also consider his vehicles rather interesting, given the few that have impersonated a Roman candle ever so well!

      7. 96percentchimp

        Re: Elon Musk isn't helping, is he

        Is he going to buy space telescopes for all the amateur stargazers whose work often contributes to the science? I look forward to the free upgrade.

    2. Richard 120

      Re: Elon Musk isn't helping, is he

      FFS it's flies

    3. Hazmoid

      Re: Elon Musk isn't helping, is he

      Bonus points for HHGTTG reference :)

      1. I3N

        Re: Elon Musk isn't helping, is he

        Was wondering how that was abbreviated ...

        reading the UHHGttG currently ...

        'They won't let us in without a bottle'

  3. Hugh Pumphrey

    Hopefully time limited

    None of this is good. The main "could be worse" factor is that the perigee is quite low, so the orbit should decay reasonably fast. With a perigee of 800km instead of 400km, the junk would have stayed in orbit for decades rather than years.

    1. Spherical Cow

      Re: Hopefully time limited

      It's already been up for nine years and it spends most of its time much higher than 400. These fragments are going to be around for a while.

    2. cray74

      Re: Hopefully time limited

      The main "could be worse" factor is that the perigee is quite low, so the orbit should decay reasonably fast.

      Not as fast as a 400km circular orbit, unfortunately. With only brief dips to 400km, that second stage and its debris field could last decades. Recent Western practices for second stages are to get their perigees a bit lower or actively deorbit them (SpaceX) after payload release.

      A nice database of debris entries and initial launch dates can be found here. Too many of those upper stages last decades in GTOs.

  4. Spherical Cow


    Why was this useless thing still up there since 2011? With an apogee of 3,606 km and perigee of 422 km it wouldn't have taken much oomph to de-orbit itself, if someone had given it the capability. That's pretty crappy design.

    1. John Jennings

      Re: Irresponsible?

      with less mass to each piece, wont its orbit just decay all the faster?

      1. Sgt_Oddball
        Paris Hilton

        Re: Irresponsible?

        On an idle pondering, has anybody ever experimented with laser beams on space objects using a satellite in orbit rather than a ground borne lase (like those boffins of an Antipodean nature)?

        Seems like we could do with a few space lasers at a very high altitude to give objects the nudge they need to get out of the way or even de-orbit quicker.

        Paris - because of Space (will LOHAN ever happen?)

        1. OssianScotland

          Re: Irresponsible?

          But how will you provide the (obligatory) sharks with a supply of oxygen?

          1. Rich 11

            Re: Irresponsible?

            But how will you provide the (obligatory) sharks with a supply of oxygen?

            The oxygen will already be in the water, obviously.

        2. Alan Brown Silver badge

          Laser Brooms (Re: Irresponsible?)

          It's been pondered - and the general concensus is that lasering from on-orbit is impractical and even more problematic than lasering from the ground.

          Laser Brooms are perfectly feasible NOW. The problem is that they can be used to bring down other countries' satellites as well as debris and technically the debris that's up there is the responsibiilty of whoever made the mess

          Unless/until there's an international treaty and an international organisation tasked with doing the job that has FULL transparency/oversight from all parties, any one party deploying one could be construed as an Act of War by other spacefaring nations

          Good luck getting the USA and China in the same room to agree on this, let alone China and India or India and Pakistan

          1. stiine Silver badge

            Re: Laser Brooms (Irresponsible?)

            give them all hammers and let them fight it out.

        3. This post has been deleted by its author

      2. AdamT

        Re: Irresponsible?

        in principle, possibly. I think it is one of those "surface area that presents for air resistance vs. mass" things. But when in orbit there is the variable density with height issue too. So I think everything can get very non-linear so not much change in distance from the earth can lead to radically different lifetimes. Furthermore, if it was an explosion (residual fuel? pressure tank?) then some bits might be moved into orbits that will decay quicker and other lumps the opposite.

        But the perigee at least seems fairly low (422 km) and the ISS orbit (~350 km) requires periodic boosts due to atmospheric drag so, notwithstanding the non-linearity at least it seems the pieces are in the ballpark range to get some drag every orbit...

    2. lglethal Silver badge

      Re: Irresponsible?

      To give it the oomph you wanted, the rocket would have had to carry more fuel. That would require a bigger rocket, which would require even more fuel. That might require an even bigger rocket, and more fuel, etc. etc. Or what you're wanting to launch would have to be lighter. Naturally, the people behind Spekt-R went with the heavier satelllite, and no extra fuel.

      Until there are some agreed international rules, that say, hey you need to bring your rocket/satellite at end of life back down or else, then people wont do it because it costs a shite load. Every kg you want to carry up, whether that's extra fuel for the way down or extra satellite mass, costs you about 10kg of fuel, which affects your rocket and ups your cost massively. Naturally, you carry as little as possible. Unless the rules get into place INTERNATIONALLY, this isnt going to change...

  5. TeeCee Gold badge

    So Russia is parking its tanks on the USA's lawn?

    Same shit, different year...

    1. John Brown (no body) Silver badge

      Is LEO US property?

    2. Antron Argaiv Silver badge

      More like throwing beer cans on it as they drive by, in this case.

  6. Chozo

    Musings from the group W bench...

    I appreciate that a Kessler cascade event == bad, the thing is is though if we want to build the next generation of orbital infrastructure such as global wifi, orbital power generation, moon mining and ships to beyond then the present crud whizzing about needs to be cleared. So rather than try and grab every piece manually with nets, harpoons and suicide drones etc Instead break out the space cannon tech, deliberately trigger then accelerate the chaos. After a while the debris should grind itself down into particles that can be caught with disposable 'soft' satellites made of something like play-doh launched into degrading polar orbits.

    Mines the one with script for the next James Bond film

    1. squigbobble

      Re: Musings from the group W bench...

      'After a while...' That 'while' could be centuries, especially for orbits above LEO.

    2. Chris 239

      Re: Musings from the group W bench...

      @ Chozo

      Hmm? No! That would be like stopping your family from catching Covid-19 by shooting them.

      The debris would make LEO unusable for a very long time, it would not grind itself down to particles, many space station/satellite killer size objects will remain, even if it did how is your play doh satellite going to catch more than a tiny sample?

      1. hoopsa

        Re: Musings from the group W bench...

        @Chris 239 Well of course it depends on the amount of play doh you can lift into LEO, not sure how much research has been done into the feasibility of this. I, for one, would very much like to see a giant play-doh "Tootie Unicorn" in orbit.

        Also, shooting your family would certainly stop them from catching Covid-19 so I assume this comment indicates your tacit approval of the plan.

        1. Wzrd1

          Re: Musings from the group W bench...

          At the velocities we're talking about, even the play-doh obscenity would turn thousands of objects into millions, which would stay in orbit for decades to centuries due to additive velocities for some boosting the orbit for the fragments.

          Think not? We'll make a sabot with play-doh and shoot it at you at Mach 1.1. Your flesh would come apart faster than the play-doh.

  7. oldfartuk

    Why cant you have a robot satellite that just kicks debris steeply downwards from orbit to burn up ?

    1. apalamarchuk

      Look at the other comments here discussing using lasers for that purpose. One difficulty with this approach is that equipment can be easily used as a weapon. Historically manned and scientific space flights were a cover for and based on military programs to deliver nuclear weapons. Think about a newspaper headline tomorrow that North Korea or Iran launch a new space cleaning robot. Will that make you feel safer? :-)

      1. Adrian Midgley 1


        It is easier to launch a projectile from the Earth's surface to any other point on the surface than to put one in orbit.

        Maintenance over what is expected to be a long period is easier in the surface.

        Deorbiting to a specified point from orbit is both harder and slower than a single trajectory from thd ground.

        Keeping a satellite weapon safe from interference us non-trivial.

        No, the point of orbiting a satellite is that it demonstrates the ability to hit anywhere on the surface (mass and orbit have some subtleties there) and that it allows observation of geavirstionzl variations along trajectories.

    2. Wellyboot Silver badge

      It took a rocket booster 10s of minutes to get it moving that fast, it will require a similar effort to slow it down enough so that gravity can do the rest.

      Also, as soon as you move it, you're responsible for where it ends up, and will be blamed for any resulting damage.

      1. Anonymous Coward
        Anonymous Coward

        Well, we don't need to undo the entire delta V to deorbit the satellite. You just need to get the orbit to decay to the point the atmosphere takes over on a reasonable time scale.

        As far as where it ends up, most satellites will burn up on reentry. If they won't, well, rocket scientists are pretty good at predicting where things will land, especially if they have some degree of control over the craft.

    3. RobThBay

      Hhmmm..... a spaaaace Roomba

      1. OssianScotland

        Ah, so THAT'S where it wandered off to...

        1. Astarte

  8. joeydiggs

    Sorry Trumpetsters

    Now if they'd just come clean about fixing the 2016 election...

  9. First Light Silver badge

    Did part of it fall?

    Any chance that a piece of this is what I saw a few nights ago that fell into the Arabian Sea? It was nighttime in India and I saw a greenish-white light fall west of where I am (on the southwest Indian coast, so into the sea probably a few hundred metres out).

    1. cb7

      Re: Did part of it fall?

      I doubt it. Must have been something else.

      The article says these pieces are 400kms up. So not low enough to enter the atmosphere.

  10. cb7

    One day, someone will invent shields. You know, like the ones spacecraft have in Star Trek.

    But me thinks we're a long way off from that.

  11. JohnMurray

    This is all too sciency.....take a positive viewpoint: hostile aliens will have to pass through the "swarm" to invade earth! Friendly aliens may have a problem.

  12. Mike 137 Silver badge

    "65 chunks, littering Earth’s orbit with debris"

    Hardly "littering" considering how much junk is already up there and how long it's been accumulating. As long ago as 1991, Heinz Wolff suggested we needed a "vacuum cleaner - to clean the vacuum up there" and it's been increasingly necessary ever since. However the real hazard of these events typically comes later. Collisions with other debris can break up large fragments, but even tiny fragments can be lethal at orbital speeds. You can track and steer past big debris, but pebble size bits are virtually impossible to avoid.

    1. XSV1

      Re: "65 chunks, littering Earth’s orbit with debris"

      If they could modify the deflector array to emit a thoron pulse each time the vessel approached a piece of space debris, that would likely deflect debris away from the ship. Also, alternately polarising the warp nacelles could theoretically ensure that larger pieces would be transported into the delta quadrant with no loss of energy to the warp core.

      1. Glen 1

        Re: "65 chunks, littering Earth’s orbit with debris"

        You could bounce a graviton particle beam of the mean deflector dish.

  13. That 9 Bit Guy
    Thumb Up

    Tholian Web of sorts

    All the metal crap up there in space has a dollar value associated with it. Since we are going to the moon in this decade and build a base, someone could salvage it and send it to a low moon orbit or crash it on the surface.

    Granted the attempts of doing so could add to the existing crap, a simple plan to catch all these whizzing lethal objects, however long it took, is very possible.

    All the space agencies would have to pitch in, including military so there would be international oversight. It might be the next important requirement for space tourism.

    Its nothing new. The idea has been kicking around since 1979.

  14. big_D Silver badge

    Jerry Anderson

    covered this in detail in his 1960s time-shifted documentary series UFO... Oh, wait, it wasn't a documentary? My bad.

    Mine's the one with the purple wig in the pocket.

    1. Toni the terrible Bronze badge

      Re: Jerry Anderson

      How did my Purple Wig get in your pocket?

  15. Brian Catt

    They need Spaceballs One in its Mega Main transformation....

  16. carolinahomes

    Spiders are the answer!

    Let's just send billions of genetically modified metal-eating spiders up into space to catch all the fragments. If they can design their webs strong enough to catch the small stuff and weak enough to break when a working satellite passes through, then bingo! No more debris!

  17. FlamingDeath Silver badge

    Stupid humans

    This is what happens when billions of people just do whatever the fuck they want in a disconcerted and disorganised fashion, mostly capitalists and industrialists. We potentially get a completely avoidable situation where we could end up completely hindering our ability to launch into orbit. The space race hasn’t actually happened yet, but I can assure you, once this planet is close to exhaustion we will need to find somewhere else, that little hot potato isn't going anywhere soon

    1. Glen 1

      Re: Stupid humans

      The thing about terraforming other worlds, is that its much easier to terraform this one.

      Unless you want to live under a network of domes... which would still be easier to build on earth.

  18. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    I wonder what would happen if you launched a tonne of sand packed around some high explosive and detonated it in orbit. Seems like a reasonable response to deny an adversary the use of space, if threatened by them... also wonderful how asymettrical the damage would be. Trillions versus the cost of a space launcher.

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