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Aardvark Daily

New Zealand's longest-running online daily news and commentary publication, now in its 25th year. The opinion pieces presented here are not purported to be fact but reasonable effort is made to ensure accuracy.

Content copyright © 1995 - 2019 to Bruce Simpson (aka Aardvark), the logo was kindly created for Aardvark Daily by the folks at aardvark.co.uk



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The Sky is falling!

30 January 2020

We all know that the area of space surrounding Earth is becoming increasingly littered with "space junk".

As we continue to hurl satellites into the skies over our heads, it becomes an ever-more cluttered and congested region where the risk of collision between active birds and dead ones grows on a daily basis.

Now space is big, very big -- but the area of space where you'll find most of the man-made stuff is not that big at all and (as they say in the Airline Pilots Association) "it's only a matter of time" before we have a really big crash.

Space.com is reporting that there's a pretty "near miss" due to happen in just a matter of hours in the skies above the continental USA.

In this report it is claimed that the two satellites will come within just 15-30 metres of each other.

Let's hope they've got that right because the effects of such a collision could be devastating for many other birds in nearby orbits.

Both the satellites involved in this forecast near-miss are old and defunct.

One is the IRAS, launched some 37 years ago and the other is an even older craft called GGSE-4 which was hurled into space back in 1967, long before the issue of "space junk" was even on the radar.

What can we learn from this event?

Well hopefully we'll confirm that ground-tracking equipment is accurate and able to predict the paths of such decommissioned craft with huge accuracy and reliability. If that's not the case, things could turn out rather poorly for a whole lot of other satellites.

These days, decommissioned satellites are usually deorbited (if they're in LEO) so that they burn up in the atmosphere and pose no threat to man, beast nor other craft. Those in geosynchronous orbits (much further away from the planet) are usually boosted into a much higher orbit, which keeps them clear of the active satellites.

It's only when there's a malfunction and de/re-orbiting isn't possible that a satellite becomes a potential risk to others.

But of course back in the 1960s, statellites were new and shiny so I guess the guys who threw the GGSE-4 into orbit never gave a second thought as to what it would be doing more than half a century later.

We've seen plenty of talk of "garbage collection" craft being used to scoop all the space-trash out of orbit but it becomes a very expensive operation with only limited effectiveness and just a single high-speed collision would create massive amounts of tiny projectiles that would be impossible to scoop up.

At the speeds these things are travelling, even a few grams of metal on a collision course with a highly sophisticated communications satellite can spell disaster.

Ah well, we live in interesting times I guess.

Maybe we should all wear hard-hats today :-)

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