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Russian Breeze-M upper stage breaks up in orbit — US Air Force

January 22, 6:52 UTC+3 WASHINGTON
Its fragments do not pose any real threat to telecommunications satellites
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© ITAR-TASS/Oleg Erusov

WASHINGTON, January 22. /TASS/. The spent Breeze-M upper stage of Russia’s Proton rocket broke up in the near-Earth orbit, but now its fragments do not pose any real threat to telecommunications satellites, Air Force Capt. Nicholas Mercurio, a spokesman for US Strategic Command’s Joint Functional Component Command for Space, told TASS on Thursday. This centre, located on the Vandenberg base in California is tracking all objects in outer space, including space debris.

The UN Air Force’s Joint Space Operations Centre (JSpOC) tweeted on January 20 that it had identified a "possible breakup" of a Russian Breeze-M upper stage earlier in the day.

The JSpOC, which is the Defence Department’s nerve centre for space operations and tracks space objects from Vandenberg Air Force Base in California, is tracking 10 pieces of debris related to the breakup.

According to Captain Mercurio, American experts have recorded the breakup of a space object, identified as the Breeze-M upper stage on January 20. Now they are monitoring at least 10 fragments that are in a geosynchronous orbit. The fragments at the moment pose no threat to satellites in orbit, he said.

According to Nicholas Mercurio, "Currently no other payloads are affected and the JSpOC will continue to monitor the situation and catalogue the debris in order to preserve the long-term safety, stability and sustainability of the space environment."

The representative of the Joint Space Operations Centre also said that according to US data, the disintegrated Breeze-M upper stage was used by the Proton rocket that placed into orbit a spacecraft in the interests of the Russian Defence Ministry on December 13, 2015. As usual, that carrier rocket was launched from the Baikonur spaceport in Kazakhstan.

A number of independent experts believe that the fragments are causing particular concern, because they are in the geosynchronous orbit used by most telecommunications satellites. Brian Weeden, technical adviser at the Secure World Foundation, said because of the rocket body’s location at the time and its proximity to the geostationary belt, fragments from this explosion will be a hazard to satellite operators "for a long time to come." "While it’s unlikely the debris objects from this explosion will hit any individual satellite, they do increase the overall debris threat," he said. In 2007, another Breeze-M rocket body with nearly a full tank of fuel exploded in a lower orbit after a Proton rocket malfunctioned. That explosion created more than 1,100 pieces of debris.

The US Air Force Joint Space Operations Centre began monitoring objects in space since the launch of the first Soviet Sputnik in October 1957. Since then, a total of 39,000 objects have been put into the catalogue of artificial space objects. JSpOC now conducts constant monitoring over 22,000 objects in the near-Earth orbit. About 5% of them are operating satellites, 8% - spent rocket stages, and the remaining 87% - fragments of various satellites and broken satellites.

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