Back in April 2019, which seems like such a long time ago with all of the pandemic problems, I wrote about space junk and the problems that can arise from it falling back to Earth. The title of the article was “I Shot An Arrow Into The Air, It Fell To Earth, I Know Not Where.”
In that column I referenced a particular motion picture. 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.
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.” 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 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.
Now back to more recent times with an event that sounds like it actually came from the script of the movie “Gravity” that I referenced earlier. This isn’t fiction. The International Space Station (ISS) took a serious hit from space debris and paid the price with a gaping hole punched through its robotic arm. Just imagine what could have happened if that debris struck one of the pressurized compartments containing the astronauts when they were not wearing pressurized suits. That is unthinkable, but with increasing amounts of uncontrolled space debris out there it’s not a stretch of the imagination to have debris strike and destroy an orbiting satellite or even worse a vehicle ferrying astronauts to and from the ISS, or the ISS itself. There are plans to collect the loose debris, but that will take years at best.
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