They’re hurtling toward each other at 33,000 miles per hour. The good news is they aren’t a threat to Earth — just other satellites.

Two dead satellites might collide in low Earth orbit on Wednesday at nearly 33,000 miles per hour. If they so much as graze each other at that speed, theyll create a hypersonic shockwave that will completely shatter them both and would leave shrapnel behind in their orbital paths.
Thats not good: Weather satellites are in low Earth orbit, and tech companies use satellites there for satellite phones, and want to use them to broadcast the internet. If theres debris in that orbit, it risks slamming into active satellites were actually using.
The chances of collision have shifted a few times in the last 24 hours, but currently stand at 1 in 20, according to LeoLabs, a space debris tracking service. Those odds, bumped up from the 1 in 1,000 chance of collision predicted yesterday, now take into account the long booms on one of the satellites.
Imagine something passing the end of your nose at 33,000 miles per hour. Thats a bullet, said Jonathan McDowell, an astronomer at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics. It just missed you, but youre pretty scared.
But its not likely that the debris would fall to Earth if they hit, it will all burn up falling through the atmosphere, according to McDowell.
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The two satellites the Infrared Astronomical Satellite, a 1.1 metric-ton hunk of metal that was the first orbiting telescope to map the night sky at infrared wavelengths back in the 80s, and the Gravity Gradient Stabilization Experiment 4, an experimental device meant to test spacelight principles, launched in 1967 will likely come within 40 feet of each other over Pittsburgh at 6:39 PM eastern time, according to LeoLabs.
As more and more stuff goes up into orbit, were not taking enough of it out of the atmosphere after its usefulness has expired. There are more than 2,000 operating satellites in orbit right now, according to the Union of Concerned Scientists, but there are tens of thousands more pieces of decommissioned junk up there, too, including what might be a floating trash bag.
That junk is a threat to plans to expand satellite communications. SpaceX wants to send up a constellation, as its calling it, of 12,000 small satellites into low-orbit to beam the internet down from the stars. Other companies are rushing to get into the space-internet market, too, as the private space industry booms.
The proposed mega-constellations, despite the claims that the operators make that theyre going to be able to handle the situation, I am unconvinced, McDowell said. Thats just too many satellites. Were going to have collisions and we will have real problems.
The number of near-misses we can expect is the square of the number of satellites in space, according to McDowell. If 10 times as many satellites go up, expect 100 times more near-collisions.
In 2009, a dead Russian satellite slammed into an active U.S. one. And last year, one of SpaceXs satellites narrowly missed the European Space Agencys Aeolus, which monitors wind patterns from space.
All this has space nerds calling for the establishment of a set of orbital rules of the road. Right now, no international organization is regulating whos allowed to take up space in low Earth orbit.
Once we have more collisions and people see the impact of that, then there will be a wake up call for some kind of regulation to address this, McDowell said.
Cover: The Infrared Astronomical Satellite. Photo courtesy of Nasa.