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

Thursday, February 14th, 2008

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.

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Space debris problem is getting worse

Tuesday, February 6th, 2007

In January I wrote about the idiocy of China’s anti-satellite missile test, which created thousands of pieces of new space debris. Now, the New York Times is picking up the story. I’m glad someone big in the news industry finally realized the significance of this event, even if it took them a few weeks longer than an amateur spectator. The article includes some quotes from an interview with Donald J. Kessler, whom the Kessler Syndrome is named after. The orbit of the weather satellite that was destroyed is high up, so the debris will continue orbiting for up to millions of years. Nice job, China. The article also points out that the Chinese probably didn’t want to pick a lower target because it would put the International Space Station at risk, but some of the farther-roaming debris from the energetic collision with the satellite are already doing just that.

At least it’s not entirely bad news, though:

If nothing is done, a kind of orbital crisis might ensue that is known as the Kessler Syndrome, after Mr. Kessler. A staple of science fiction, it holds that the space around Earth becomes so riddled with junk that launchings are almost impossible. Vehicles that entered space would quickly be destroyed.

In an interview, Mr. Kessler called the worst-case scenario an exaggeration. “It’s been overdone,” he said of the syndrome.

China creates space debris, intentionally

Thursday, January 18th, 2007

CNN is running an article about how China has successfully testing an anti-satellite missile on one of their own old weather satellites. After three failures, a missile successfully destroyed the satellite, which was in orbit at 537 miles above the Earth. As low-Earth orbits go, that is actually pretty high (the International Space Station, for instance, is only 200 miles up, meaning it could easily be destroyed by one of these missiles). The CNN article goes into depth about all of the political implications of this, and they are important, but they neglect one important issue.

It’s really, really, really mind-bogglingly stupid to create more orbital debris, and by blowing up a satellite, China has now created thousands more pieces of debris. Space is already littered with innumerable amounts of debris, ranging from tiny flecks of paint all the way up to spent rocket boosters and dead satellites. Since there’s no air friction in space, these small bits are moving really, really quickly, and even a paint fleck can be deadly. We have already suffered damage in the past from space debris: satellites have been lost and space shuttles and the ISS have been damaged, all because of space debris. NASA does its damnedest to try and keep track of it all, but of course, they aren’t and can’t be perfect, and at some point in the future there is going to be a genuine disaster, involving the loss of human lives, hundreds of millions of dollars of space hardware, or both. This disaster could well be caused by debris from China’s absolutely idiotic and unnecessary intentional catastrophic collision in space.

The worst part about this, though, is that we are now one step closer to seeing the Kessler Syndrome start to manifest itself. The Kessler Syndrome is basically an orbital doomsday scenario that cuts off mankind’s access to space for thousands of years. The way it works is, some random collision occurs, creating many bits of space debris in orbit. These debris, in turn, end up hitting other things, shredding them, creating even more debris, in a Domino-like fashion. Eventually, everything in orbit is utterly destroyed, and the space around Earth is so polluted with space junk that it is impossible to even launch anything anymore, as it would be destroyed by random impacts almost immediately upon exiting the atmosphere. The scary thing is, the Kessler syndrome is already possible with the current amount of hardware we have in space. Luckily, almost all of it is up there in large controlled chunks, but all it could take is one apocalyptic collision to set a terrible chain of events into motion. This is why China’s test is so mind-numbingly stupid. Because once the Kessler Syndrome takes effect, the only solution with current technology is to wait it out, letting the space debris hit each other, lose momentum, and gradually burn up in the atmosphere. The process takes thousands of years before low orbit is safe to traverse again.

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