“I Shot An Arrow Into The Air, It Fell To Earth, I Knew Not Where;”

Space Debris
Destructive Space Debris, Movie Gravity | Image by wallerjoel.typepad.com

The title of this article should be familiar to us all. It is the first two lines of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s famous poem The Arrow and the Song. Those words are particularly important to bow hunters as they are aiming at their prey. As all hunters are taught, you need to identify your target before you shoot at it. Some hunters using firearms improperly shoot when they see the brush moving without actually seeing the animal they are hunting. That can result in another hunter being shot and possibly killed.

Destructive Space Debris, Movie Gravity | Image by wallerjoel.typepad.com

A fairly recent fictional movie plot showed how the Russians blew up one of their satellites and the debris started destroying other satellites and eventually the International Space Station, a Russian space platform, and a Chinese space platform. There were some scientific miscues in the plot of “Gravity”, but a recent event caused a lot of concern particularly for the future. Just what repercussions could result in a disaster in space or even in the skies over our cities. The debris could possibly damage or destroy an airplane in flight.

Missile Launch
Indian Defense Research and Development Organization Ballistic Missile Launch | Photo by Ministry of Defense, Government of India

In this case reality is imitating art. 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. 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.”

Space Debris Damsge
NASA Scientist Mark Matney Seen Through Thumb Size Hole in a 3-inch thick piece of Aluminum struck by a test object at high speed to simulate Space Debris | Photo by AP/Pat Sullivan

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.”

In order to move a satellite away from a newly destroyed satellite’s debris some sort of program could be developed so that there would be enough time to send the order to change orbit and give the satellite enough time to get out of the way. 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. ”

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.

A final quote :”In 1978, NASA astrophysicist Donald J. Kessler described a worst-case scenario. If the space around the Earth got crowded enough, Kessler suggested, then one collision or explosion could inevitably lead to another. It would be like knocking over a row of dominoes, except that they would take years, rather than minutes, to fall.” If the military of a country try to shoot down satellites of another country we could have a real space war on our hands. Lets hope cooler heads prevail.

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.

Meteor Shower
Meteor Shower | Photo by Texashillcountry.com

Just maybe the plot of the movie “Gravity” isn’t so far-fetched as we first thought. Think about that the next time you look up at the night sky during a meteor shower. If they can fall naturally to the Earth and pieces survive so that someone or something could be hurt, imagine what a cascade of crashing satellites could do to us.

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


Tim Chuey is a Member of the American Meteorological Society and the National Weather Association and has been Awarded Seals of Approval for television weathercasting from both organizations.

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