Sunday, April 30, 2017

Garbage Up “There”

Ready for the future? You settle down in your seat, fasten your much more complicated safety harness, and prepare for a trip to… er… Mars? You could be a scientist on a mission of exploration. Perhaps a really rich person who figured out how to spend some of that wealth. Or??? The take-off is severe, G-forces literally pulling your face back… but once up past the blast, the view out that window is staggering. Until there is a loud smack-crack as the window shatters, the air is sucked out of the cabin… and you just die.
From the Sputnik days in the late 1950s, followed by the Mercury, Gemini and Apollo missions that followed in the 1960s, mankind has been launching satellites carrying everything from building materials for space stations, global positioning transmitters, spy satellites with really incredible cameras and tracking capabilities, communications satellites and more than a few death rays along the way. We are completely dependent on these sky structures for everything from the television shows we watch to our automotive navigation systems to our military campaigns. More countries and even private industry are adding to orbiting space traffic as launching into space gets less expensive by the day.
Aside from the active satellites, there are tens of thousands of space shards, dead satellites and miscellaneous, human-created space debris spinning around up there waiting to: crash into the earth somewhere nasty, crash into another satellite costing tens of millions (if not more) and inflict massive disruption on earthly communications and operations below. “Roughly 49 percent of satellites are in low-earth orbit, which is also where astronauts work. Another 41 percent are higher up, in geosynchronous orbit.” Washington Post (10/24/13). The problems are obvious.
There’s a scene in the motion picture, Gravity: “During a spacewalk to service the Hubble Space Telescope, Mission Control in Houston warns the team about a Russian missile strike on a defunct satellite, which has inadvertently caused a chain reaction forming a cloud of debris in space. Mission Control orders that the mission be aborted and the crew begin re-entry immediately because the debris is speeding towards the Shuttle.” Wikipedia. The International Space Station takes a direct hit. The impact of that debris is the core of the film’s plotline, and what happens is pretty terrifying.
While the film might not be completely scientifically accurate, the hazards of “too much metal in orbit” are very real, with major consequences waiting to happen. “Worst-case scenario: a massive, unstoppable, chain-reaction traffic wreck above our heads. So much for escaping Earth to distant galaxies… The news from space was not great… The problem is about to get worse, experts say, as cheap, tiny satellites are shot through the stratosphere in unprecedented numbers…
“Hundreds of thousands of bits of space junk are orbiting Earth, according to NASA. These include tiny paint flecks that can take out a space shuttle window, and some 2,000 satellite shards left by a collision of Russian and American satellites several years ago…
“[One collision can trigger a chain reaction from the resulting debris as described in] a keynote speech from retired NASA scientist Donald Kessler, known for coming up with an apocalyptic space-crash theory called the Kessler syndrome — or ‘orbital Nagasaki,’ as a researcher once described it to The Washington Post… Basically: A thing hits another thing at 25,000 mph or so. Those things then explode into more things, which hit yet more things, initiating a catastrophic chain reaction of collisions that makes low Earth orbit totally unusable.
“Kessler predicted this in the 1970s, when space had fewer things in it. At [a recent] conference, he previewed a new study he worked on that found ‘a statistically meaningful number of satellites’ that have been damaged by debris.
“And an ESA [European Space Agency] official described a recent study finding that a particularly crowded region of space has already become unstable, which he worried could foretell Kessler's doomsday scenario… The bad news didn't stop there.
“As satellites get smaller and cheaper, more and more of them are going into orbit to potentially smash into each other… In February, the New York Times reported, India launched 104 tiny satellites into space from a single rocket… In all of human history, ESA's debris chief said at the conference, about 7,000 spacecraft have left Earth. He pulled up a slide of 12,000 new satellites set to go up soon, announced by companies such as Samsung and SpaceX.
“Many of these — like the batch India sent into space — are nano-satellites: tiny, motorless machines that promise to revolutionize communications… They're simple enough to make that grade school students in Arlington, Va., put one together for a class project. Once in orbit, they fan out into wide constellations, outperforming their bulkier ancestors.
“But these tiny satellites have big problems, according to experts at the conference. There will be lots of them, for one thing. And since they can't navigate, they'll keep careening through space long after they've stopped working and are thus more likely to collide with other things.” Washington Post, April 21st.
What’s the answer? One possible solution: “Economists typically solve this problem with what's known as a Pigouvian tax or user fee to better align those incentives. So, they ask, why not place a user fee on orbital launches to help pay for clean-up?
‘User fees are a solution straight out of the Reagan era to deal with precisely these sorts of environmental issues,’ says Peter J. Alexander, an economist at the Federal Communications Commission and a co-author of the paper. (He helped write the paper in his spare time, not on behalf of the U.S. government.) ‘This is a classic commons problem.’” Washington Post (10/24/13). Yup, classic? Really? And exactly who is going to enforce this and implement the clean-up? Something’s gotta give before there is a huge problem that impacts all of us down here on good old dysfunctional earth.
I’m Peter Dekom, and when you least expect it…

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