Warehouse C
Above Our Heads
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Runaway Falling Spy Satellite Raises Grim Questions


By James Donahue


The admission by the US military that a disabled American spy satellite is not only malfunctioning, but out of control and about to plunge to some unknown place on earth raises a specter of the growing volume of space debris circling over our heads.


This is not the first massive piece of space junk to fall from the sky in a fiery ball, nor will it be the last. The most memorable was the old Russian space station Mir, that was brought down in a somewhat controlled drop over the Pacific Ocean in 2001. We also recall NASA’s Skylab, a 78-ton abandoned space station that fell in the Indian Ocean in 1979.


This particular object, a 10-ton block, was launched in December, 2006, so it has not been up there very long. The military is remaining quiet about just what this satellite is, what it was supposed to do, and just what is on it, largely because it was supposed to be spying on somebody.


Authorities say its crash to earth will likely occur somewhere over water, since most of the surface of the planet is ocean. But if it hits land, as the Columbia space shuttle did in 2003, the debris would be less extensive.


Other than the fact that there is a faint possibility that a satellite may be dropping in somebody’s back yard, the fact that one of them got out of control, and is dropping down on us from space, makes us all more aware of the fact that we have a fast growing number of those buggers flying around up there.


That satellites are now being launched by many other nations, and many of them for military purposes, has apparently made it difficult for us to capture an accurate and up-to-date count of just how many of those things are now circling our planet. One recent estimate, taken from the public Internet encyclopedia Wikipedia, counts them at 2,465.


As of 2006, the estimate was that there were “more than” 800 active satellites then in orbit, and that the United States owned more than 400 of them.


This is a lot of hardware flying over our heads every day and every hour. If we add to this all of the other debris from rocket boosters, broken off parts, and debris from exploded or abandoned space vehicles and satellites, there is a massive about of junk now polluting the space around our planet.


The US Air Force Space Command is currently tracking more than 18,000 pieces of debris, totaling abut 4 million pounds, in space, and says it can’t keep up with the escalation in junk. A massive amount of new debris was created when China tested an anti-satellite missile last year and successfully blew up one of its own weather satellites.


Tracking this stuff is critical for NASA, and the space programs being developed by China, Russia, India, Japan, the European Union and other nations. That is because all that stuff is flying at high speed and even something as small as a nut or bolt, or a lost toothbrush, can cause extensive damage if it strikes an orbiting satellite, space station, or passing manned shuttle.


The concern is that if this increasing volume of space junk doesn’t hamper, or even block future attempts to explore space, it may someday come crashing down on us.