Satellite collision highlights space-junk threat
The collision between a US and Russian satellite some 500 miles above Siberia has raised concerns about the threat posed by orbital garbage.
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The problem is particularly insidious because collisions with orbital debris tend to create more debris, thus increasing the risk of future impacts, which in turn create more debris. In theory, a single collision could create a runaway feedback loop known as the Kessler Syndrome, named for NASA consultant Donald Kessler, in which the area around the earth becomes so crowded with orbital detrietus that it becomes impracticable to launch anything into space.Skip to next paragraph
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Another Reuters story warns that the growing likelihood of orbital collisions could strain international relations. The news agency quotes Andrew Brookes, an aerospace analyst at the International Institute for Strategic Studies:
"In the longer term, there are geopolitical implications to this because people are going to start wondering, 'was that crash deliberate?' " said Brookes.
"The international community needs to get a grip of space and become much more transparent about what's going on, otherwise we're going to end up in a situation where there are serious diplomatic incidents as a result."
Reuters noted that on Thursday the European Union called for nations to adopt "a code of conduct for civil and military activities in space" to prevent such incidents.
Such calls are not new. The Monitor's Pete Spotts reported in March 2008 that many in the space community are calling for increased international cooperation to create a sort of air traffic control system for low Earth orbit.
Space junk also poses hazards to those of us on Earth. In 2006, a Chilean airliner carrying 270 passengers came within 35 seconds of colliding with a derelict Russian satellite that was plummeting into the Pacific faster than the speed of sound.
The most famous instance of falling space garbage occurred in July 1979, when the US space station Skylab fell back to Earth. The 100-ton space station broke up, and large chunks of it crashed near the town of Esperance, Australia. Local authorities fined the US government $400 for littering. To this day, the fine remains unpaid.