Depending on your preferred categorisation, as an early member of Generation X, one of Thatcher’s children or an eighties victim, it’s hardly surprising I remember Kirsty MacColl. In a decade that undoubtedly had the best music, I remember her cover of New England being a stand out moment of 1985. It was bittersweet yet somehow full of promise and optimism, at a time both were in short supply.
Salyut 7 Space Station
As a life long fan of space science (not to mention science fiction), another story I remember from that year was the little reported Russian rescue mission to save Salyut 7. Having lasted in orbit longer than Skylab (which had fallen to earth dramatically in 1979), the station began to look very dated, particularly compared to the growing successes of the US Space Shuttle. When the Salyut station began failing to respond to ground commands in 1985 threatening to become uncontrolled, a mission to restore control and avoid an uncontrolled re-entry into the atmosphere began. Of course, the Russians weren’t the only nation to suffer the embarrassment of losing control of their space kit. The United States Skylab station suffered a decaying orbit and crash landed over Nullabor and the eastern goldfields of Western Australia in 1979. Indeed many in Western Australia have material from the remains of Skylab today.
In an act of poetic symmetry, I was reminded of both Skylab and Kirsty MacColl last night with the brief sighting of a ‘shooting star’ (a meteor) burning a short but mesmerising trail in the night sky.
“I saw two shooting stars last night, I wished on them but they were only satellites. It’s rude to wish on space hardware, I wish, I wish, I wish you cared” [Kirsty MacColl – New England 1985 (Billy Bragg)]
There are countless meteoroids ranging in size from a grain of sand to roughly a meter in diameter with millions of impacts with the earth’s atmosphere daily. Most are materials from asteroids or comets with some being collision impact debris from bodies such as the moon or Mars. As the item approaches the atmosphere as a meteoroid it becomes visible as a meteor and if it makes to the surface could be recovered as a meteorite.
Of course, there are significantly bigger objects. One such saw China join the United States and Russia have their space hardware return to earth. The Tiangong-1 space station (Chinese for heavenly place) had been tumbling in a decaying and uncontrolled orbit for some time. It is thought China began losing control of the 85 tonne station in 2016.
At midnight on 2nd April 2018 just to the north-west of Tahiti, the Chinese craft landed in a part of the South Pacific ocean now known as ‘spacecraft cemetery’. There are over 110 crashed satellites, booster rockets and similar components (including the Russian Mia space station) in this preferred crash zone for returning space debris. Quite how the people of Tahiti and French Polynesia feel about being on the glide path for returning objects of this type is unclear, not that I can find any record of anyone asking them.
An artist’s impression of the Cassini spacecraft entering Saturn’s atmosphere.
Technically, there are alternatives to dropping tons of metal back into the oceans. On September 15th 2017, mission control for the Cassini spacecraft made precise adjustments to the satellite’s orbit of Saturn. They declared end of mission at 4.55am (pdt) after committing the craft to a gradual entry into the planet’s atmosphere ensuring it was completely destroyed and nothing would make it to the planet surface. In that case, the concern was that no material would inadvertently transfer organisms from Earth to Saturn, a process which appears to have been completely successful. So, if this type of precision disposal is possible, why don’t we take the same approach on earth preventing the potentially harmful and uncontrolled return of debris?
Early mapping of low level orbit objects
There are many reasons for this ranging from the lack of a legal requirement to do so through to the nature of the atmospheres. However, the most surprising reason is due to the fear of the risk of collision.
When Kirsty MacColl sang of space hardware, there was simply far less of it as this map of known satellites from the time shows. Compare this comparatively peaceful picture of planetary obstructions with a similar mapping of objects in low earth orbit today and you get a very different result. Whilst in Saturn’s orbit you are guaranteed a solitary orbit, that is far from the truth for Earth.
Mapping of objects in low, high and geostationary orbits [Source: NASA]
The current NASA mapping of objects in low, high and geostationary orbits around the planet shows a cluttered and confused picture. Much of the material is defunct, faulty or debris from satellite launches. In addition are a myriad of weather, military and communications satellites as well as GPS hardware. Finding a safe space to deploy, orbit and operate is becoming increasingly difficult. Trying to negotiate that to undertake a Cassini-like operation over Earth is thought to be highly improbable.
The worlds first orbital crash in 2009
It’s already been a case of this orbit isn’t big enough for the both of us. In 2009 the Iridium 33 (US Commercial) satellite’s orbit coincided with that of Kosmos 2251 (Soviet Space Agency) and resulted in the first recorded crash between two stable satellites. I dread to think of the paperwork involved in that insurance claim.
Whilst it’s true there are bands of orbitting material (low, high and geostationary) this doesn’t help when numbers are being added at the current rate.
Last year (2017) there were just short of 400 launches planned from earth to deploy orbiting material. In 2018 the planned launches already exceed 500 with more than double that planned for 2019. We are rapidly thought to be approaching a tipping point where further orbiting satellites cannot be safely put into orbit. The current model predicts that state being the case in the mid 2030’s. Thinking of how dependent global communication, global positioning, data transfer, weather forecasting and national security and intelligence have become on satellites, this is a situation many have a vested interest to prevent. Those are working hard to prevent some of the most catastrophic suggestions, such as that by NASA professor Donald Kessler. He suggests collisions between space debris become increasingly likely as the density of space debris increases in orbit around the earth, and a cascade effect results as each collision in turn creates more debris that can cause further collisions. If that was the case, the planet could lose the ability to deploy or repair existing satellites for most of this century.
So what has this to do with a New England? Well, for me it’s that sense of promise and optimism in a time short of both. Today sees the launch of one more satellite. Coordinated from the University of Surrey this mini cube carries the research and development promise of a way to clean up much of this debris.
It’s also encouraging to hear of similar research for autonomous drones to tackle some of the plastic polution in our seas. Unlike Kirsty MacColl, those involved in both projects do want to change the world. To start tidying up something we’ve taken for granted for far too long. I for one wish them great success.