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Wednesday, April 4, 2012

Rubbish . . . Space Rubbish!

Late last year a large research satellite fell back to Earth. At first, NASA didn’t exactly know where it landed. Maybe near Hawaii, maybe in Texas. While this was a worrisome event for some, it might be just a blip on the radar screen so to speak.
During the 1980’s, NASA scientists began to worry about the amount of space debris. Over the years since, every study estimating the number of pieces of debris present showed an increase. In 1984 there were 5,000 detected, in 1990 8,500 pieces, in 2005 13,000 pieces, in 2006 19,000 pieces, and this year 22,000 pieces. Some of the increase is due to additional launches and some due to better study techniques. But something else is going on.
NASA scientist Donald Kessler had a theory. What would happen if space debris not only collided with satellites, but other space debris? Many large pieces of debris would be created that themselves would become a threat to collide with still more debris. The real number is the amount of space junk detected PLUS the new debris created when it collided. This became known as the Kessler Syndrome.
But so what? A majority of orbiting debris is very small and that couldn’t create much damage. The National Academy of Science thinks differently. They estimate that a 1kg (2.2 lbs) object travelling at 10 kilometers/second is capable of “catastrophically” destroying a 1,000kg (2200 lbs) spacecraft. This would send out many, many more pieces of debris to collide with other objects.
Imagine a pool table with billiard balls being sent off in different directions when struck by the cue ball. Each one striking other previously stationary balls which then are set moving to strike others; and instead of the bumpers around the table, there are more billiard balls waiting to be struck. It becomes a chain reaction. The Kessler Syndrome predicts this. The rate at which debris is produced can become greater than the rate that debris decays in orbit and falls into the atmosphere.
Two years ago Donald Kessler stated, “Aggressive space activities without adequate safeguards could significantly shorten the time between collisions and produce an intolerable hazard to future spacecraft . . . Such activities could set up a situation where a single satellite failure could lead to cascading failures of many satellites in a period of time much shorter than years.” No more GPS, no more cell phones, and very few new launches (especially with humans aboard) due to the increased danger. 
NASA estimates that even if no new launches took place, the amount of space debris will begin to increase “on its own” by 2055. The National Academy of Science expressed the opinion that at the 1,000 kilometer and 1,500 kilometer altitudes, we are already past the critical density at which cascading begins. At the 2009 European Air and Space Conference, the prediction was made that the threat from space debris would increase by 50% in the next ten years and quadruple by 2059. There are currently 13,000 potential collision “close calls” tracked each week.  
So what does this have to do with family history? In a literal sense nothing. But figuratively it proves that what we do in our lifetime will affect the lives of our children.
“Undeservedly, you will atone for the sins of your fathers.” Horace 


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