Russia has been facing some challenges in its space program over the last year. The most recent issue with Russia’s space program happened when one of its rockets failed to push its payload into the desired orbit in August. The rocket was a Briz-M rocket motor and is the third that has failed since 2007.
The latest Russian rocket failure left two fully fueled spacecraft stranded in orbit according to NASA. The Russian Briz-M upper stage was carrying the Telekom 3 and Express MD2 spacecraft. The rocket shut down shortly after the start of its third of four planned maneuvers on August 6.
When the rocket shut down it was in an orbit of roughly 165 miles x 3116 miles at an inclination of 49.9° relative to the equator. Both spacecraft on board were later autonomously released. However, when the third stage rocket engine became stranded in orbit, there were fears that the rocket could explode.
That fear proved true in the middle of October when the rocket stage exploded creating a massive new cloud of space debris that poses a threat to other orbiting satellites and could threaten the International Space Station. The explosion left behind a cloud of debris with more than 500 pieces. Even tiny pieces traveling at thousands of miles per hour in orbit pose a significant risk to satellites and for space travel. Scientists estimate that there are roughly 21,000 pieces of space junk larger than about 4 inches in orbit. There are roughly 500,000 pieces of debris between 0.4 and four-inches, and over 100 million pieces of junk in orbit smaller than 1 cm. Even those tiny pieces can cause catastrophe.