Archive for February, 2009

Space Debris Editorial

February 14, 2009


I’ve gotten a lot of email asking me about this latest fender bender in Low  Earth Orbit.  For what it’s worth, a few personal thoughts for you to agree or disagree with…


The crash is nobody’s fault – it’s a result of a totally uncontrolled approach to orbits, appropriate to the early days when hardly anything was up there, never updated as reality morphed, and shared by virtually all space fairing countries.  And the law of probabilities.


  Some of the press blamed Russia – which is absurd.  Their satellite was dead, but so are most of the satellites up there, including many that I have built with US Government funding and compliant with our best practises.   I can think offhand of 5 of mine that are just aluminum in space for now and will be there for maybe another 20 years.  Eventually they come down and evaporate in the atmosphere, but for 5, 10, 20 years, they are like bullets shot into the air, which usually come down harmlessly (or in this case reach the upper edge of the atmosphere harmlessly where aerothermal effects reduce them to molecules). 


This is a scenario Arthur Clarke predicted almost 40 years ago.  One hits another, creates 10,000 chunks which then have a high likelihood of hitting another couple, creating maybe 50,000 chunks and pretty soon, everybody is in trouble.  I worry just because I’m closer to them, about Italy’s brand new radar satellites (COSMO SkyMed) which are maybe 100 km lower and in a similar orbit.  In the next few years that debris will start to reenter, and its orbit will become more elliptical, crossing their orbit.  This was $billions of Italian investment over the past 15 years and it’s working wonderfully – has propelled them to prominence in space world-wide.  Many countries are in a similar situation with significant national investments at risk.  Speaking as a probabilities guy, they were always at risk, but the risk is now more tangible and immediate, which is generally what it takes to move any one threat above so many others on a list of national priorities.


  I’m sure engineers at space agencies and companies around the world are burning the midnight oil (or LEDs) figuring out how to defend, but it’s a little like protecting your car from being hit by bugs driving to Saratoga Springs in August.  As is typical of the US, we have spent a lot of time in the Quixotic search for a perfect, universal solution.  Likely a smaller country will take a more practical appraoch and solve 80 % of the problem in the next 5 years.  


But it’s hard to predict.  Sometimes we greatly over perform compared with expectations, and other times humans fail to act at all.  It is too early to tell how this latest news flash will evolve as the great space bureaucracies digest it.  But my general sense is that people need challenges and threats and that space suffers from a lack of urgency.  So this may well be a good thing for the industry, in a way analogous to how hurricanes are good for construction companies.  A little counter-intuitive, but not without precedent.


 – Rick