Heads up

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Today being the Autumnal Equinox is officially the last day of summer. But before you go polishing off the Pimms, have a care for the unlucky saps about to be hit by six tonnes of caramelised artificial satellite. If you were thinking that the recent spate of terrorist attacks, floods, dengue outbreaks and political struggles would have hardened your nerves by now, here’s a mouthful you should be concerned about for the next twenty four hours or so – the Upper Atmosphere Research Satellite (UARS).

In the unfortunate circumstance that you should hear a loud crash followed by pandemonium, don’t go accusing a large neighbouring country to the East of us or begin teasing out the subtleties of a Zionist plot to destabilise Pakistan. And if you should find that something twisted and inorganic has indeed fallen down, rest assured it is not the dignity of Musharraf and his rent-dodging APML in London. Please remain calm and let the good scientists at the United Stated National Aeronautical and Space Administration (NASA) know that their space thingamajig is decorating your neighbours car and they need to send someone to pick it up. As NASA boffins scurry to retrieve their precious satellite, it may give the opportunity to get better acquainted with our newest invader.

Launched in 1991 aboard the space shuttle Discovery, the UARS was decommissioned after fuel ran out in 2005 and it has been steadily falling back towards the Earth ever since. Upon re-entry into the atmosphere, space junk would normally burn up and disintegrate – but not if it’s the size of a school bus. Then it doesn’t quite burn up in the fiery descent but rains down in chunks that can be scattered across a wide area.

NASA has announced that up to twenty six large pieces from the UARS, some weighing over a hundred kilograms are going to be making their way to terra firma; and that the path of debris would be nearly a thousand kilometres long. Now that’s one problem with these NASA boffins. They give you alarmingly precise details of destruction but ask them where it’s going to land and they scratch their heads. And if NASA can’t tell you where that large satellite flying just over two hundred kilometres above your head is going to make landfall, it seems UARS in trouble. But they say NASA is working hard to pinpoint the trajectory and issue some sort of alert. If they are able to warn us, then any land based settlement in the path of destruction will have just minutes to take cover. Until that warning comes in, everyone is at risk.

Is it possible that science finally meets religion in Cape Canaveral as NASA staff (if not the whole world) prays for the satellite to fall into the ocean? As that is the likelihood with oceans covering much of the earth, it’s no wonder that the odds of you – personally – being hit by a falling piece of debris are about one in twenty one trillion. However the odds of someone, somewhere on this planet getting hit by debris are just one in thirty two hundred. Those are not good odds when such a high risk re-entry has been left to the whims of gravity and friction. It may sound a whole lot more like Roulette in Vegas than cutting edge rocket science but it is what it is. I mean this is NASA we’re talking about here, not the Spaceballs.

If such licence is given to space agencies, will not every aspiring engineer who yearns for a job at NASA learn to engage in feats of human endeavour with reckless abandon and an utter lack of accountability? It certainly looks like it. This is why we need to look at the issue of space debris as not being too different from public littering. With over twenty thousand pieces larger than four inches currently being tracked by NASA, it seems space tourism aboard Virgin Galactica or Space Adventures will commence with fascinating sights of the world’s only orbital landfill as you dodge your way past the space junk. How typical.

Critics have warned that that the amount of space debris orbiting the Earth has reached critical mass. Some computer models actually reveal that the amount of junk has reached a tipping point, with enough currently in orbit to continually collide and create even more debris, raising the risk of spacecraft failures and other hazards to terrestrial and orbital assets. What we need to move towards now is international regulation that limits debris and implements stringent disposal systems which prevent the boffins at NASA and other space agencies around the globe from treating Earth’s orbit like it was their own personal waste paper basket.

The writer is a consultant on public policy.

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