The United States to join China’s follies in creating space debris?

Missile defense launch
A year ago, China took the monumentally stupid step of demonstrating its space military power by shooting down one of its own satellites. Good for them; they can blow stuff up. And then came the unintended consequences. That explosion created tens of thousands of new debris fragments in space, and because each of the high orbital speeds involved, any single one of those fragments could cause serious damage to a satellite, a space shuttle, or the International Space Station. China’s military demonstration was ridiculously stupid (one might say “epic fail”), kind of like demonstrating your prowess with a gun by shooting everyone in attendance in the feet, yourself included. Space debris is a problem that affects everyone equally, and as China continues to develop and sends more satellites into space, they’re really going to wish they hadn’t put all of their space hardware at an increased risk. Space junk does not discriminate.

So you can imagine my fury when I read today that the United States is considering a plan to fire a missile at one of its failing spy satellites. No, no, a thousand times, no! Don’t be as stupid and shortsighted as the Chinese. Let the damn satellite come down on its own. The risks of it hitting anything important are minute, and once it is down in one piece, at least the problem is over. But blast it into thousands of pieces of space debris and you’ve just created a problem that will be with us for hundreds of years.

Low-Earth orbit isn’t a dumping ground for us to fark around with at our leisure. There is a saturation limit beyond which debris runs into other debris at an accelerating rate, creating ever smaller debris, eventually saturating low-Earth orbit with fine, lethal junk in a runaway process. This is called the Kessler syndrome, and it’s an end scenario we desperately want to avoid. If we end up foolishly walling ourselves off from space for the hundreds of years it would take the space debris to fall to Earth through friction, I do not think our species would survive. We’re already trashing this planet so badly our only hopes are to get off it.

Whoever came up with this shoot-down plan doesn’t know how to do proper risk analysis. Yes, the satellite will not completely burn up in the atmosphere, and there is a small chance that a large chunk could come down on top of someone, killing them. But exploding it in orbit is actually much more deadly over time. We already have humans in space on a continuing basis on the International Space Station, and within a few decades space will explode thanks to private space exploration. Commercial sub-orbital flights are on the way within this decade, and vacations at space hotels for the uber-rich are not too far off. And remember, this is just in the near future. But the space debris stays up there for hundreds of years! Create all of that space debris with another satellite explosion in space, and in the long run, you will be putting many more lives at risk.

Please, U.S., just let the satellite fall where it will so that the threat is over. Don’t endanger so many lives in the future just for the political exigencies of the present.

5 Responses to “The United States to join China’s follies in creating space debris?”

  1. Kelly Martin Says:

    The reason they’re shooting it down is that this is a spy satellite with sooper-sekrit technology that they don’t want falling in someone else’s hands. So they’re going to try to blow it up. The satellite itself is disabled; normally what they do with these when they hit end of life is deliberately steer them either into a long-lived outer orbit or into a controlled reentry somewhere where they can recover it. This one failed shortly after launch and never responded to commands, though, so they can’t do that.

    I also think part of the motivation is simply that blowing things up is fun.

  2. Cyde Weys Says:

    Unshielded re-entry is harsh on objects that are designed to be as light as possible to make it to orbit in the first place. Whatever pieces do end up coming down in one piece are still going to be mostly destroyed, and it would be one hell of a reverse-engineering effort to work on.

    I think the real motivation is the same kind of propaganda that China got from destroying its satellite. There is a real military PR benefit to demonstrating the capability of taking down satellites. I think they’re using this failed satellite as a flimsy pretext of having something to shoot at. Remember, the satellite the Chinese took out was at end-of-life too.

  3. drinian Says:

    Tsk, you have failed to RTFA. (Here’s a good one). The satellite is going to be intercepted during re-entry, in order to ensure that the space junk _doesn’t_ end up in orbit. I’ll be pretty impressed if they can pull this off, although as I understand it these are pretty big satellites.

  4. Cyde Weys Says:

    Well that isn’t my TFA. The one I linked had decidedly less information. So they’re going to shoot down the satellite at 150 miles. I wonder what percentage of the debris will be blasted into a higher orbit, where it will be able to survive much longer than the two weeks figure given for the 150 mile orbit?

  5. Bryan Says:

    I thought this sounded a bit alarmist. The shooting down of the US satellite was specifically planned to not create space debris. Thank You NASA for being a responsible space agency.

    “The intercept attempt, which will involve a Standard Missile 3 fired from a U.S. Navy Aegis ship, will take place during a window that opens after NASA’s space shuttle Atlantis returns from its International Space Station-construction mission Feb. 20 and will remain open for several days. The window was selected based on the satellite’s current re-entry trajectory and the U.S. government’s desire to minimize hazards in space, in the air and on the ground.”
    Quoted from space.com