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DAN'S PAPERS, February 27, 2009 Page 16


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built and launched in 1993 and it had become disabled in 1995. No one was on board that either. Since the crash, Russia has expressed outrage that the American satellite simply plowed into the Russian satellite, which was, figuratively, parked by the side of the road with its flashers on. A Russian web site, without reporting on whether anybody was on board, or alongside, changing a flat tire, commented this way about what they referred to as a “smashup.” “The Maryland-based Iridium Company denies responsibility for this week’s collision between U. S. and Russian communication satellites. Meanwhile, Russian officials wonder why U. S. satellite experts didn’t prevent the

crash by adjusting the working satellite’s orbit. They speculate it was due to ‘computer failure or human error.’” Turns out, this is not just idle posturing or propaganda by the Russians. At the Houston International Space Station, a spokesman said ruefully that the orbits of satellites are often adjusted by remote control from the ground, where they cause little puffs of air from tiny jets on board to steer satellites around space debris and back into regular orbits. There were no witnesses to the accident. There were, however, many witnesses to the result of the accident, which sent millions of pieces either up into higher orbits or down into lower orbits. Iridium observed that part of its phone system went down and that the satellite

Winner of Both Double Diamond and Project of the Year. 1197735

was not answering. That afternoon, they phoned NASA about it. NASA, of course, had already noticed that there were a whole lot of new objects up there and was looking into it. Using telescopes, they figured out that the accident happened 490 miles above the Earth. There is considerable concern about the space station. The space station orbits 215 miles above the Earth and there could be a problem if the space station encountered downward drifting debris, although it is officially reckoned as “unlikely.” There are three people, all Russians, up in the space station. “What we’re doing now is trying to quantify that risk,” said Nicholas L. Johnson, who is the chief scientist for NASA. “That’s a work in progress. It could take days for us to determine the size and number of pieces of debris.” When asked, he guessed there would be many, many dozens of pieces of debris, if not hundreds. But then, apparently realizing there were really millions of pieces, he suggested that there might be pieces so small they couldn’t be seen. “We can dodge the big ones,” he said. “It’s the small things you can’t see that are the ones that can do you harm.” One of the larger concerns about this situation is what one official called the “ball break” effect. To start a game of pool, one puts all the balls in a triangle at one end of the table and hits them with a shot by the cue ball from the other end of the table. Balls go everywhere. And some balls hit other balls. In this case, however, everything that might get hit breaks apart and sends more debris out to get hit. Because of the fact this is in a near vacuum, things could get much worse rather than just come to a halt as in pool. Up around 800 miles, there are hundreds of old satellites finished with their work that have been nudged into an orbit called the “buried” orbit. Some are old American Naval satellites, with nuclear reactors on board. Others are old Soviet satellites, also with nuclear reactors on board. At least there is no danger to those of us here on Earth. In a hundred years or more, debris will eventually drift downward into the Earth’s atmosphere and burn up before hitting the planet. It might be pretty to watch that happen. But this is no way to get rid of space collisions. There are no police up there to check licenses and to give out tickets. There are no ambulances or fire trucks, no volunteer firemen putting out red traffic cones to detour traffic. There’s no wrecker, with two guys with brush brooms on board to sweep up the debris while the wrecker hauls up the mangled vehicles to the back of a flatbed. There’s no insurance companies you can call to sort out who is to pay to have the fender and body people knock out the dents or pay the medical bills or reimburse the weeping survivors and family members and give them the proper compensation. There are also no seatbelt laws, no traffic lights, no points for speeding and no DWI. There’s also no law against texting while driving. It’s a whole new world up there. And nobody’s paying the slightest bit of attention to it. Where is my friend’s friend when we need her?

Dan's Papers Feb. 27 & Mar. 6, 2009  

Dan's Papers, the 51-year-old bible of the Hamptons, is owned by Manhattan Media, a multi-media publishing company based in New York City,...

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