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Wednesday, March 28, 2007

Why Worry About a Little Thing Like Turbulence

posted by on March 28 at 13:02 PM

when there’s Cold War crap falling out of the sky?

Pieces of space junk from a Russian satellite coming out of orbit narrowly missed hitting a jetliner over the Pacific Ocean overnight.

The pilot of a Lan Chile Airbus A340, which was traveling between Santiago, Chile, and Auckland, New Zealand, notified air traffic controllers at Auckland Oceanic Centre after seeing flaming space junk hurtling across the sky just five nautical miles in front of and behind his plane about 10pm last night.

According to a plane spotter, who was tuning into a high frequency radio broadcast at the time, the pilot “reported that the rumbling noise from the space debris could be heard over the noise of the aircraft.”

According to this story from the BBC, the “current estimate is that there are over a million bits of debris orbiting the Earth” and that much of it is “bits of nuclear reactor coolant that are leaking from old satellites.”

The piece of Russian satellite mentioned above was bigger than that, and had it hit the airliner the result would have been disastrous. Again, from the BBC story:

Although most of the debris in space is small, it’s traveling extremely fast. Below altitudes of 2,000 km, the average relative impact speed is 36,0000 kmph (or 21,600 mph).

At this speed, collision can be dramatic:

• A 1mm metal chip could do as much damage as a .22-caliber long rifle bullet.

• A pea-sized ball moving this fast is as dangerous as a 400lbs. safe traveling at 60 mph.

• A metal sphere the size of a tennis ball is as lethal as 25 sticks of dynamite.

Still, as scary as the idea of satellite debris hitting an airliner is, the odds are pretty slim. And besides, there’s an even bigger threat from space debris, one which could make it impossible for future space travel, or even satellite launches. From the International Herald Tribune:

For decades, space experts have worried that a speeding bit of orbital debris might one day smash a large spacecraft into hundreds of pieces and start a chain reaction, a slow cascade of collisions that would expand for centuries, spreading chaos through the heavens.

Debris smashing into debris, creating even more (smaller) debris. And this chain reaction, as it turns out, may be just around the corner:

Now, experts say, China’s Jan. 11 test of an antisatellite rocket that shattered an old satellite into hundreds of large fragments means the chain reaction will most likely start sooner. If those predictions are right, the cascade could put billions of dollars’ worth of advanced satellites at risk and eventually threaten to limit humanity’s reach for the stars.

For its part, NASA, as far back as 2000, has been worried about space debris:

NASA is to test a laser “broom” capable of removing debris in the path of the International Space Station (ISS), on a space shuttle mission in 2003, the British magazine New Scientist reports in its Saturday issue.

The broom, dubbed Project Orion, is designed to stop objects between one and 10 centimeters (0.4 to 4 inches) in diameter, which could puncture holes in the hull of the ISS.

The laser “broom” didn’t pan out, however. Which means our space junk problem can only get worse.


RSS icon Comments


I guess the solution is a hyper-space button on all spacecraft. Like in Asteroids.

Posted by Paulus | March 28, 2007 1:34 PM

So our first extra-terrestrial visitors are likely to be Planetary Litter Police?

I wouldn't be too worried about the .22-cal bullet; the myth that a bullet wound to a jetliner's skin would explode a big hole and suck all the passengers out into free-fall is an urban legend. I don't like the sound of the 400-lb. safe much though.

Of course, if there ever is a collision like this, it will be assumed to be terrorists, and all brown or otherwise suspicious people will immediately be arrested and quarantined.

Posted by Fnarf | March 28, 2007 1:37 PM

Sounds like a job for - Mega Maid.

Posted by COMTE | March 28, 2007 1:38 PM

space debris will pose a problem for future use of space. I'm not too worried about that "chain reaction" spreading chaos through the heavens. Most of the debris burns up as it enters the atmosphere. And how can these "experts" think our space debris, when spread out through infinite space, would cause chaos?!

But thanks for giving me one more thing to worry about during air travel.

Posted by him | March 28, 2007 1:50 PM

Him, the majority of the debris won't be spread out through infinite space, it will stay in orbit. A chain reaction would mean (relatively) few big pieces of junk to many more small pieces of junk flying around the planet. The problem, from my understanding of the story (which was also in the NYT Science section a while back) is not so much the debris falling on airplanes, but rather making it unsafe for sattelites and shuttles, space stations to exist in space. There could be so much crap up there that we end up stuck on earth and without even the capability to fly satelites. Would that not be ironic? Talk about shitting your nest.

Posted by Jude Fawley | March 28, 2007 1:59 PM

I foresee the most boring space disaster movie ever.

Posted by elswinger | March 28, 2007 2:20 PM

They need to stop calling space projects 'Orion'.

Posted by gfish | March 28, 2007 2:26 PM

"stop going into space."

Posted by earthsays, | March 28, 2007 3:59 PM

Right, earthsays, instead let's just go the way of the dinosaurs when the next "big one" hits.

Posted by COMTE | March 28, 2007 4:33 PM

@9 what?

Posted by Paulus | March 28, 2007 5:30 PM

Ha ha! Stoopid hu-mans!
Pwned by your own trash!

Posted by treacle | March 28, 2007 8:33 PM

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