Technology

Translation Please: Talk About Cosmic Debris

3/07/2009 7:21 AM Eastern

Last month, a defunct Russian satellite crashed into an American communications satellite. It was the first such space crash of man-made objects in the 52-year history of us rocketing satellites into our Earth’s orbit.

The impact blasted something like 6,000 more chunks of space junk into an already-crowded Earth orbit. (They were closing in on each other at about 17,000 miles per hour.)

Shortly after the crash, I had the good fortune to hear the story told by a satellite pioneer — a guy so entrenched in his love for space and its people, he gave a eulogy last year for Sir Arthur C. Clarke (the sci-fi writer who invented geosynchronous orbit) and is pals with Ann Druyan (Carl Sagan’s wife).

Dom Stasi, chairman emeritus of the SSPI, the Society of Satellite Professionals International, holds a day job as chief technical officer of TVN Entertainment, with previous senior engineering gigs at both HBO and MTV. His space work predates the Apollo program.

Stasi made his remarks at the Center for Inquiry, in L.A., which hosts a monthly gathering of science-minded people to discuss science-minded stuff.

Consider: There are 903 active satellites orbiting our Earth right now. By Stasi’s calculations, which involve subtracting the volume of the Earth from a spherical space bounded by the Clarke and Polar synchronous orbits (another translation entirely), the area in which those 903 satellites move is about 76 trillion cubic miles. (Programmers, fear not: Your satellites are way higher up.)

That’s plenty of elbow room. The crash was a fluke.

But then there are those 24,000 other objects orbiting Earth right now, some smaller than a baseball. Think rocket parts, lifeless gear — even an astronaut’s mislaid tool box.

Also amid the debris: a decommissioned Russian “Cosmos 1900” satellite, 10 years dead. That’s what bashed into the American “Iridium” bird, used to provide telephone services to the 85% of the globe that doesn’t get cellular signals.

Stasi began and ended his discussion with a reminder: The world’s space program is an outgrowth of the Cold War between the U.S. and the Soviet Union. Yet, later in the very day of the crash, Russian astronauts delivered two tons of food and supplies to the American astronauts currently working in the International Space Station. The sincere gratitude on both sides, heard from an audio clip, was anything but cold.

So, we’re warm now with Russia, at least as far as space is concerned. The volume of trash up there is another story.

Stumped by gibberish? Visit Leslie Ellis atwww.translation-please.com.

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