It’s Not Science Fiction, It’s Science Fact.

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Satellites
Artist's Depiction of Satellites Orbiting the Earth | Image by nasa.com

During a time of political turmoil there seems to be a subject that some politicians are really serious about. A hearing was held on February 12, 2020 by the U.S. Senate’s Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation in which experts were asked to list their priorities when it comes to serious threats to planet Earth such as space weather, rogue asteroids, and space debris.

Quoting an article from space.com titled “Satellite crashes, asteroid impacts and space weather pose big risks, US lawmakers say” in which committee chair Roger Wicker (R-Mississippi) said “It sounds like a movie script, but it is reality, and where we are.”

SOHO
Solar and Heliospheric Observatory | Image by nasa.gov

We have technology in place now to watch out for these threats such as satellites in orbit around the earth that look out into space, but many of them such as the Solar and Heliospheric Observatory (24 years in operation) are wearing out and will need to be replaced soon. We have ground-based telescopes, but they are busy with other tasks so they can only be taken away from their assigned duties for short periods of time. The scientists need much more data for their computer simulations to be able to accurately predict what will happen when they find an object that will be falling toward Earth.

The U.S. Department of Commerce’s Office of Space Commerce Director Kevin O’Connell says we need a partnership between government and private industry to develop new computer models for the predictions and much more data input from multiple sources. O’Connell is quoted as saying that the new model would “allow for a truly open exchange between commercial vendors, [U.S.] allies, and others.”

The following are descriptions of some of those hazards to Earth that I discussed in previous column articles.

Asteroids: In reality the event is quite common and usually not very dangerous since most are relatively small and burn up in our atmosphere before ever striking the earth. The problem arises as to what happens when a much larger object doesn’t burn up in the atmosphere and continues downward exploding in a ball of fire upon impact. It seems obvious that someone needs to be watching the sky to see if and when these objects will threaten life on this planet.

Catalina Sky Survey
Catalina Sky Survey | Image by jpl.nasa.gov

NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) at the California Institute of Technology released the details of the most recent contact with space debris. Saturday morning June 2nd the NASA funded Catalina Sky Survey, operated by the University of Arizona near Tucson, discovered what they described as “a boulder-sized asteroid named 2018 LA” that was determined to be on a collision course with earth. The scientists estimated that it was only about six feet across making it small enough to be expected to safely burn up in the atmosphere.

Finding Asteroid
Finding Asteroid 2018 LA | Image by jpl.nasa.gov

How did they find this particular asteroid? It wasn’t easy. According to the JPL “When it was first detected, the asteroid was nearly as far away as the Moon’s orbit, although that was not initially known. The asteroid appeared as a streak in a series of time-exposure images taken by the Catalina telescope. (See the blue circles in the images above.) They sent the data to the Minor Planet center where they projected the asteroid’s path as it approached the earth. Predicting exactly where it would go wasn’t possible, but a basic path gave them at least the part of the world and a few countries to observe. There really weren’t much more than a few hours between pinpointing the basic path and the asteroid entering earth’s atmosphere.

The event was caught on video Asteroid 2018 LA exploded in a ball of fire: http://eugenedailynews.com/wp-admin/post.php?post=7366331&action=edit&classic-editor. Man-made Space Debris: A Forbes.com article titled “India’s Anti-Satellite Missile Test Left A Cloud Of Debris And Tension In Its Wake” written by Kiona N. Smith highlights this specific and increasingly dangerous practice. Apparently the rule is if you own a satellite you have the right to destroy it.

Missile Launch
Indian DefenseDepartment Ballistic Missile Launch | Photo by Ministry of Defense, Government of India

It happened on March 27, 2019. India, not the country I would have expected, completed a test in which they launched a ballistic missile to intercept and destroy one of their own dead satellites that was orbiting at about 300 km (186 mi) above the earth. It sounds simple enough, but it became quite complicated.  The project was called “Mission Shakti.”

Nearly one week after the satellite was blown up, quoting the article, “U.S. Strategic Command was tracking 400 fragments of the destroyed satellite. Immediately after the test, U.S. Strategic Command was tracking 250 pieces of debris in orbit, most of which have since fallen into Earth’s atmosphere. The destructive test has raised new concerns about anti-satellite warfare and the risk that floating debris from such destruction could pose to civilian spacecraft.”

Space Debris Damsge
NASA Scientist Mark Matney Seen Through Thumb Size Hole Caused by Space Debris Photo by AP/Pat Sullivan

There has been a debris problem in the crowded space around the earth since we started putting so many satellites, space platforms, and space vehicles up there. When a satellites has a power failure or it no longer functions it can become a hazard. Without power they will eventually fall out of orbit and Earth’s gravity takes over. Most of the debris has burned up in the atmosphere and whatever makes it through is usually to small to be a serious threat, but there is still debris circling the earth still.

India certainly isn’t the only country to do this. Quoting the article ” In 2008, the U.S. fired a missile from a guided missile cruiser, USS Lake Erie, to destroy a malfunctioning reconnaissance satellite, USA-193, 230 km above the planet’s surface. The impact pushed a dozen pieces of the satellite into orbits that reached 500 km to 90 km, and it took 18 months for the last of those to fall back to earth. ”

Satellites
Artist’s Depiction of Satellites Orbiting the Earth | Image by nasa.com

The Chinese destroyed one of their satellites back in 2007 producing “the largest debris cloud in the history of human spaceflight.” It took six years, but in 2013 a Russian satellite was struck by a piece debris from the Chinese satellite. The impact was strong enough to change the orbit of the Russian satellite. There is still plenty of debris from those destroyed satellites that is being tracked to this day.

US Astronaut In Soyuz Simulator| Photo by NASA

On Thursday July 16, 2015 a piece of space debris forced US astronaut Scott Kelly and two other astronauts in the International Space Station to take shelter in the Soyuz spacecraft that is docked at the station and kept there for emergencies.

CME
Coronal Mass Ejection (CME) | Image by thewestsidestory.net

Space Weather: The biggest space weather threat comes from a much needed heavenly body – the Sun. Solar flares or as the formal term sites Coronal Mass Ejections (CME). The CMEs spread out in all directions from the sun, but they also can be sent directly toward the earth. So far we do not have the technology to deflect CMEs as the space.com article quotes the Director of NOAA’s Space Weather Prediction Center William Murtagh “We alert the power grid [officials] , in particular, give them as much notice as possible, and they take the action necessary to mitigate from the induced current produced by particles hitting power lines.”

All of this means that as of now we have very little if any protection from these hazards and that solutions need to be worked out, and soon, if we are to find ways to prevent future destructive events dropping from the sky above us.

Let me know what you would like me to talk about or explain. You can comment below or email me at: [email protected].

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