It' s finally happened: two satellites have slammed into each other at top speed, one and a half tons of orbital impact action and probably the most expensive recorded explosion not to star Will Smith. A Russian satellite rammed a Department of Defense communications relay eight hundred kilometers over Siberia, and if this had happened forty years ago you'd be reading this on the DOS terminal in your nuclear fallout vault.
The defense satellite was an Iridium secure-phone relay, and when we say "was" we mean it - outer space collisions aren't slowed down by anything silly like friction and both satellites were utterly smithereenized. Which means that this is only the start of the trouble: the communications crash fired an expensive-ex-satellite shrapnel shotgun right into the communications orbits around Earth. Thousands of pieces are expected, to joing the tens of thousands already up there.
These pieces are tracked by the US Space Surveillance Network and currently pose the largest risk to any manned shuttle flight. Understand: dropping soft squishy humans from three hundred and fifty kilometers straight up, with nothing but a small metal box and some ceramic to prevent them from burning/squishing/suffocating/being flayed alive at hypersonic speeds, is still safer than avoiding all the metal shrapnel we've studded the orbits our own planet with.
Experts have always know that this was going to happen, says Orbital Debris Scientist Mark Matney of Johnson space center. Johnson space center certainly did because they actually have the job description "Orbital Debris Scientist." This increasing problem motivates missions like the SNAP system, a UK nanosatellite designed to latch onto a dead satellites and pull them out of the way in a suicidal dive to burn up in the atmosphere. Unfortunately the SNAP mission failed, ironically adding to the space-junk list instead of reducing it, but now no-one can ignore how the need for such systems is only increasing.