Dispatches | February 21, 2009

Bad news this week for people awed by the final frontier and the second-to-final frontier, which are apparently getting a tad crowded. The much-discussed collision of two satellites in low Earth orbit and the just-disclosed deep sea nuclear submarine fender-bender in the Atlantic Ocean indicate that it might be a good time to turn the music down and do a hand check, because whoa, people, everybody’s getting awfully close.

Look for that call for a hand check to ring loudest from groups like the Solent Coalition Against Nuclear Ships (SCANS) who already had a bone to pick with the nuclear submarine as an appropriate aquatic vehicle. Every time a lonely nuclear sub leaks a few tons of deadly radiation into the world’s oceans, or breaks mid-trip and dooms a bunch of Russian sailors to an unspeakable and heartbreaking underwater fate, SCANS is up-periscope with two hands on the ideological torpedo key. Imagine what those guys are going to say about this — two nuke subs, one incident, and an accidental one, at that. Right now, inside the SCANS office in Southampton, smart, civically engaged people are hunched in front of laptops trying to figure out the most articulate way to express, “Oh, for cryin’ out . . . c’mon!”

Meanwhile, at the UN, the orbital collision is being debated by the United Nations Committee on the Peaceful Uses of Outer Space (UNCPUOC). 

(For any acronymologists just tuning in, it’s SCANS one, UNCPUOC zero)

It’s looking like there may be some legal fallout regarding the spacecraft smash-up since one of the satellites belonged to the Russian military and the other belonged to a private company in the U.S., but more pressing is the issue of whether the debris from the crash will harm other satellites.

For both of these cases, it’s important to understand the size of the objects relative to the environment. For instance, I always assumed the average run-of-the-mill satellite was about the size of a beach ball, but it turns out that’s way low in terms of scale. The two satellites that became one above Siberia last week were more like Ford F-150s, each weighing about a ton, and yikes! they were moving! How fast? According to Hampden-Sydney College’s physics and astronomy web site, this fast:

I know, right? Crazy fast. It would take me close to half an hour to race the distance one of those satellites travels in one second. Granted, I would lose little momentum at the water station, but still! And not only are the busted, F-150-sized junkers still going this fast, but so are all the pieces that flew off in all directions.

Experts who’ve been interviewed for both incidents have remarked about the unlikelihood of these events in the first place. Both events have to do with collisions between sophisticated, highly specialized objects that normally function in total solitude. In other words, they each describe a pair of graduate students knocking together at a vast mixer, one resulting in a sudden, alarming — frankly disturbing — bump that is destined to be referenced vaguely in some future poem; the other a spectacular spill that sends cabernet sauvignon and cheese cubes on toothpicks flying around the planet at close to five kilometers per second.  

All I’m saying is, this could be coincidence, but it could also be a sign of the times. When country crooner Lee Ann Womack sings that she hopes we still feel small when we stand beside the ocean, she isn’t messing around. But how large can the ocean be when nuclear submarines are dinging each other’s doors? How spacious is space any more? NASA’s chief orbital debris scientist just announced that there are 19,000 satellites up there, pretty much for good, and we’re just getting started. 

Out-of-commission this week: two nuclear submarines, two communications satellites, one TMR blogger’s sense of the sublime.