Satellites, Space Debris, and Shootdowns by James Schwoch

The International Space Station just had a close call with space debris. This is a rare, although foreseeable, event for the ISS, and standard human evacuation preparation procedures were followed—thankfully, no evacuations were needed. The latest tally on space debris estimates about 18,000 pieces the size of your computer mouse (and many more even tinier bits and bolts) currently floating around in outer space, much of it hanging around in the first few thousand kilometers above Planet Earth. The collision of Iridium 33 and Cosmos 2251 a month or so ago added a lot more debris to the mix.

Most space debris is the residue of launches (rocket stages and their parts) or the decay of satellites themselves. MIR came back to Earth through controlled orbit decay and atmospheric burn in March 2001 (February and March seem to be big months for the history of space junk) with an estimated 20 to 35 tons of MIR remnants striking the planet—how much miniscule MIR matter remained in orbit is unknown. (See  a good chronology here.) SKYLAB came down in a fireball off the Australian coast in July 1979; who knows how much scattered SKYLAB spoor remained in space. Even in the early days, space debris was big news, such as the famous “Manitowoc Fragment” of Sputnik 4 which struck North 8th Street in Manitowoc, Wisconsin in September 1962—an event now celebrated with a local Sputnikfest

Debris can also result from destroying satellites. During the Cold War, both superpowers developed the proven skills of orbiting satellite destruction, a technique which has resurfaced. The US satellite shootdown of USA 193 one year ago and the 2007 China satellite shootdown of China FY-1C in January of that year also produced more debris and meant China became the third nation to prove it had the scientific, technical, and military means to destroy an orbiting satellite. Given the increasing number of missile-armed nations also capable of satellite launch, one wonders when we might see more nations join this club of rather dubious distinction. Or, more dangerously, whether satellite launches and subsequent shootdowns could provoke nations to go to war: we may find out next month, if North Korea goes ahead with its satellite launch, now announced for sometime between 4 and 8 April, and Japan makes good on its warning announced in the past 24 hours to shoot down the North Korean satellite

In Global TV I take up questions of a yet another kind of space hazard—not space debris, but radioactivity from high-altitude nuclear weapons tests conducted by the USA and the USSR prior to the 1963 Limited Test Ban Treaty. As we have lived with the exploration of outer space as a human activity for over fifty years, we have also lived with debris, collisions, radioactivity, and other human-borne hazards of outer space over the past fifty years. Incidents like the recent ISS near-miss with space junk remind us that space debris has a history, and unfortunately suggests that history is as checkered as the history of environmental stewardship on Earth.


James Schwoch is an associate professor of communication studies at Northwestern University and author of the new book Global TV: New Media and the Cold War, 1946-69. To follow his work in Qatar, become his friend on Facebook.

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