Sunday, February 15, 2009

Will we lose access to space?

Many are aware that a recent collision of an old, out of service Russian satellite which was falling slowly out of orbit and an operational Iridium satellite has generated a cloud of debris which threatens other satellites in the same, popular orbital altitude. Perhaps people are not aware that this collision, or another like it, could set off a space version of a nuclear chain reaction.

Pieces of satellites from previous collisions become time bombs capable of destroying other satellites, thus creating more debris, eventually rendering space unusable. The more satellites which are hit, the more chances of additional satellites being hit.

At the high speed at which satellites travel, about 18,000 miles per hour, even small particles of debris can destroy other satellites, creating additional debris clouds which extend in all directions from the original track. Within a short period of time, all of orbital space could be filled with these lethal objects.

It would be very difficult, if not impossible, to build satellites capable of withstanding such strikes, which would generate additional debris in any case.

Modern navigation has been revolutionized by the GPS satellite system. Communications and television services depend on satellites. The Hubble telescope has shown what space based observatories can accomplish. The manned space station is on the verge of fulfilling its promise of a permanent human presence in space. All of these, and any other space based applications are at serious risk of obliteration.

At this point, one can only hope that a chain reaction doesn't start, or man's access to space may be permanently closed. Right now the news is not hopeful. There have been two such collisions in recent years, the previous one being an incredibly thoughtless Chinese anti-satellite test. Each such collision drastically increases the odds of a space catastrophe.

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