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Demolition Derby in Space

I wouldn't be shocked if this situation got worse before it got better: Two space satellites have slammed into one another and converted themselves into two giant clouds of debris in an already junked-up Low Earth Orbit. The Hubble Space Telescope is in that vicinity (If you can have a "vicinity" that's a three-dimensional volume surrounding the entire Earth -- my lexicon is overtaxed in trying to describe the geometry).

Here's my story in today's paper.

Here's the piece in the Times, which is based largely on the reporting by the veteran space correspondent Bill Harwood, who broke the story yesterday.

We'll follow it up today. See this space for more details. (This blog is so on top of things!) (We're like a wire service!!!) (Ahhhhh....The mountaintop.)


A day late, in case you missed it, here's my story on the Mars Science Laboratory.

By Joel Achenbach  |  February 12, 2009; 8:20 AM ET
Save & Share:  Send E-mail   Facebook   Twitter   Digg   Yahoo Buzz   StumbleUpon   Technorati   Google Buzz   Previous: Diary of a Barefoot Newshound
Next: Darwin's Big Idea



Posted by: Boko999 | February 12, 2009 9:09 AM | Report abuse

This confirms my desire to stay close to earth. The thought of collision on the ground is scary enough. In space, wow!

Posted by: slyness | February 12, 2009 9:11 AM | Report abuse

These things don't have bumpers?

Posted by: russianthistle | February 12, 2009 9:15 AM | Report abuse

Wonder if the events in space looked anything like this:

Posted by: Raysmom | February 12, 2009 9:20 AM | Report abuse

Hey, here's a perfect opportunity for NASA to get into the economic stimulus field...

A big LEO dustpan and broom!! :-)

Posted by: Scottynuke | February 12, 2009 9:20 AM | Report abuse

According to the article, the space station does, but the other satellites must not.

'Humphries said the space station has "bumpers" designed to shatter an object into tiny pieces before it can penetrate the pressurized interior.'

We need to get a reaction from Weingarten about whether the satellites need to leave a note or not.

Posted by: yellojkt | February 12, 2009 9:26 AM | Report abuse

Just read Joel's article about the satellite collision. NASA says that the Space Station has bumpers to ward off space debris.

For heaven's sake, don't tell Wiengarten about the bumpers! ;*)


Posted by: DLDx | February 12, 2009 9:31 AM | Report abuse

Ya gotta be quick to get ahead of yellojkt!


Posted by: DLDx | February 12, 2009 9:33 AM | Report abuse

Not that quick. It's just that great minds...

Posted by: yellojkt | February 12, 2009 9:46 AM | Report abuse

Daily announcement:

"By the power invested in me as your beloved and highly esteemed Shop Steward, I hereby do declare and aver that there shall be a regular and sanctioned meeting of the Boodle BPH on Thursday, Feb. 26, in the year of our FSM 2009, at the usual place, at the usual time. Refreshments will be served.

Posted by: curmudgeon-1 | February 11, 2009 1:05 PM

Posted by: Yoki | February 12, 2009 9:58 AM | Report abuse

Oh sure, Yoki, rub it in... :-P

Posted by: Scottynuke | February 12, 2009 9:59 AM | Report abuse

Stupid question of the day to the science guys... if a balloon filled with helium rises, does it keep going or stop at some altitude?

Posted by: russianthistle | February 12, 2009 10:04 AM | Report abuse

I had trouble sleeping last night thinking about the vulnerability of LANDSAT, my favorite of the many satellites twinkling about and winking back such a treasure trove of data.

The EOS (Earth Observation System) program at NASA does the heavy lifting for climate change assessment. The rich and complex data sets -- many groomed into fantastic images -- help us track such moving targets as

pine bark beetle infestation
land use changes in rural, suburban, and urban settings
wetland cover extent and contraction
shoreline erosion
crop rotation patterns
alluvial fanprints in watersheds

And, this very December, LANDSAT images filtered through Google Earth helped a scientist triangulate in newly noted butterfly species.

Sigh. I find myself praying for a guardian angel to hover effectively for this 37-year old workhorse.

Posted by: CollegequaParkian | February 12, 2009 10:04 AM | Report abuse

Here is some cheery-starry-eyed stuff:

I know that young man, who found his toddler-hood sweetheart these many years later.

Tis BrookLAND, not BrookLYN. Belongs to the undervalued NE corridor of DC.

Posted by: CollegequaParkian | February 12, 2009 10:07 AM | Report abuse

Scotty, at least I didn't post the ski report from Sunshine, which is 142 cm base, 8 cm of new snow, surface packed powder, all in 1000 meters vertical, 139 runs, sunny today.

Posted by: Yoki | February 12, 2009 10:08 AM | Report abuse

*weeping quietly under my desk*

Posted by: Scottynuke | February 12, 2009 10:11 AM | Report abuse

I've got a couple bucks says either Jumper or Shriek will answer your question definitively, Weed.

Posted by: Yoki | February 12, 2009 10:18 AM | Report abuse

Happy Darwin Day!

Posted by: Boko999 | February 12, 2009 10:24 AM | Report abuse

Back in Florida we saw space junk reenter fairly often. This is pretty dramatic footage compared to the usual:

I re-read a novel about the Iridium satellites recently. I believe that satphone technology was considered not too competitive in later years.

Posted by: Jumper1 | February 12, 2009 10:25 AM | Report abuse

I think the weight of the envelope finally slows upwards flight, thistle. For a certain time at first however the expansion of the bag as it rises into lower pressure increases lift. If my brain is working well today, which if the sudoku I botched tells me anything, it isn't.

Posted by: Jumper1 | February 12, 2009 10:28 AM | Report abuse

Fascinating. I guess I always knew there was a possibility of collision out in the Great Beyond, but I never really thought it would happen on this scale. I mean, why weren't those satellites steering? Did they have one too many before hitting the orbit?

Joel's article gives a whole new meaning to our motto, "Clouds are hard."

Posted by: Ivansmom | February 12, 2009 10:30 AM | Report abuse

Happy 200th birthday, Abraham Lincoln! And Charles Darwin!

Posted by: slyness | February 12, 2009 10:31 AM | Report abuse

'Morning, Boodle.

Not to bash NASA (they now have sattelites to do that), but oceanographic explorer Bob Ballard (Titanic et al.) was on The Colbert Report last night, and while he wasn't exactly bashing NASA, he was making some pretty good points about the comparative budgets of NASA versus NOAA. He pointed out we now have better maps of Mars than we do of earth's oceans, which cover 70 percent of this planet. He said one year of NASA funding is the equivalent of 1,600 YEARS of NOAA funding. (And put that way, it certainly doesn't seem right. Too bad that to a very large degree funding is a zero-sum game.)

And Ballard produced this interesting little (big?) factoid: Half of the United States is under water. Colbert asked him to explain this apparent nonsensical statement. Ballard replied that the U.S. "owns" the seabed out 200 miles from our coastline. If you take the continental US and Alaska, that doesn't add all that much water. But when you throw in a lot of the Pacific islands we own, such as Samoa, and protectorates such as the Marianas Islands, Guam, Hawaii, etc., the result is you get miniscule percentage increases in US dry land, but massive additions to the water side of the equation. The result is that approximately half the U.S. is "under water." and of course we don't have good maps of it, nor has much of it been properly explored (in the Pacific especially}.

Ballard also made a couple of other pretty interesting pointy-headed comments. He noted that due to some of his deep-ocean exploration work, we've discovered whole new types of life forms that not only no one knew existed, but which were postulated as impossible to exist. He explained that scientists have always told us that all life on earth is in one way or another dependent on the sun/sunlight, which was commonly accepted for years. But his crew have discovered life forms such as giant ocean worms that have symbiotic creatures that live "inside" them; these things have found a way of creating photosynthesis completely without sunlight, previously assumed to be impossible.

By "giant" sea worms, BTW, Ballard meant things six to nine FEET long. I don't know about you, but I find the notion of 9-foot giant sea worm just about as repulsive as anything I can imagine.

Not counting Ann Coulter, of course.

OK, that has been your nerdy science lesson for the day.

Posted by: curmudgeon-1 | February 12, 2009 10:33 AM | Report abuse

Guess President Obama doesn't dare go anywhere near Sinking Spring Farm, near present-day Hodgenville, Kentucky, today because of park closures due to extensive, recent storm damage.

Harvard professor John Stauffer was part of a panel titled "Memo to the President-Elect" late Saturday, Nov. 1 at the Texas Book Festival. Also on the panel that day were Washington, D.C.-based Reihan Salam, associate editor at The Atlantic and author of "Grand New Party: How Republicans Can Win the Working Class and Save the American Dream"; Bob Moser, editor of the Texas Observer and author of "Blue Dixie: Awakening the South's Democratic Majority"; and Ross Douthat, also from Washington, D.C. and senior editor at The Atlantic and blogger for the publication, and co-author with Salam of "Grand New Party."

I did not hear Stauffer's presentation the following morning for his new book "Giants" about Frederick Douglass and Abraham Lincoln, opting instead to attend the very humorous presentation by Native-America William Least Heat-Moon (having miised Sherman Alexie the year before). I did stop by Saturday afternoon after Stauffer's panel appearance to talk to him in the authors' signing tent and have him autograph his earlier book "Black Hearts of Men."

I invite you to read his recent essay along with Henry Louis Gates Jr., who had a Washington Post chat yesterday, about Abraham Lincoln titled, "A Pragmatic President.":

"...Lincoln was thoroughly a man of his times, and while he staunchly opposed slavery — on moral grounds and because it made competition in the marketplace unfair for poor white men — for most of his life he harbored fixed and unfortunate ideas about race.

"Lincoln had a very complex relationship with blacks. Abolition was a fundamental part of Lincoln’s moral compass, but equality was not. While he was an early, consistent and formidable foe of slavery, Lincoln had much more ambivalent feelings about blacks themselves, especially about whether they were, or could ever be, truly equal with whites.

"For example, on Aug. 14, 1862, he invited five black men to the White House to convince them to become the founders of a new nation in Panama consisting of those slaves he was about to free. A month before emancipation became law, he proposed a constitutional amendment guaranteeing financing for blacks who wished to emigrate to Liberia or Haiti. ...

"Is Barack Obama another Abraham Lincoln? Let’s hope not. Greatness — witness the presidencies of Lincoln, say, and Franklin D. Roosevelt — is forged in the crucible of disaster. It comes when character is equal to cataclysm. A peacetime Lincoln would have been no Lincoln at all. Let’s hope that Mr. Obama, for all of his considerable gifts, doesn’t get this particular chance to be great."

Posted by: laloomis | February 12, 2009 10:37 AM | Report abuse

Not only is it Darwin and Lincoln Day, today is the day that the design for the torch for the 2010 Winter Olympics in Vancouver is unveiled!

Try to contain your excitement if you are in the workplace.

Posted by: Yoki | February 12, 2009 10:44 AM | Report abuse

russianthistle - as a helium balloon ascends it expands in size as the difference between the internal pressure of the gas and the outside atmospheric pressure increases. Eventually, and probably well before the atmospheric pressure drops to a vacuum, the baloon will pop and the tattered remnants fall to the ground.

Where, to hear folks talk, it will be either immediately eaten by a sea turtle, or be discovered and form the basis of a UFO rumor.

Posted by: RD_Padouk | February 12, 2009 10:45 AM | Report abuse

RD, OK, I get it now, it is the fault of sea turtles that we don't know the real truth about those Helium balloons. How about sausage casing filled with Helium?

Posted by: russianthistle | February 12, 2009 10:48 AM | Report abuse

There is a lot of extremely sensitive hardware in orbit around the planet. I have it on good authority that many people are keeping an extremely close eye on that debris cloud.

Posted by: RD_Padouk | February 12, 2009 10:49 AM | Report abuse

Will the equipment eventually fall to earth and be eaten by sea turtles?

Posted by: Yoki | February 12, 2009 10:52 AM | Report abuse

"Still, as I look at his picture, it is the man and not the icon that speaks to me. I cannot swallow whole the view of Lincoln as the Great Emancipator. As a law professor and civil rights lawyer and as an African American, I am fully aware of his limited views on race. Anyone who actually reads the Emancipation Proclamation knows it was more a military document than a clarion call for justice. Scholars tell us too that Lincoln wasn't immune from political considerations and that his temperament could be indecisive and morose."

--Barack Obama, Time magazine, June 26, 2005,9171,1077287,00.html

Posted by: laloomis | February 12, 2009 10:57 AM | Report abuse

Yours was not a stupid question, russianthistle.

If only RD would launch a helium balloon with an indestructible sausage casing, it would presumably rise until its weight was equal to the volume of the (very thin) air it displaced, at which altitude it would float indefinitely, right?

What I want to know is, does the answer depend on whether we're talking about breakfast sausage or chorizo? (Mmmmm. Chorizo.)

Posted by: byoolin1 | February 12, 2009 10:59 AM | Report abuse

My understanding is that sea-turtle consumption is a key element of the plan.

Seriously, I know I have ranted about this before, but space junk is a huge problem. Lots of this stuff will remain in orbit for hundreds of years. And it isn't evenly distributed, you know? Because of the brutal laws of orbital dynamics there are certain altitudes and orientations that are preferred. Sort of like highways in the sky.

Any good ideas are sure to find funding. Up to and including ravenous orbiting space turtles.

Posted by: RD_Padouk | February 12, 2009 11:01 AM | Report abuse

Chorizo Bacon Explosion?


Posted by: Scottynuke | February 12, 2009 11:01 AM | Report abuse

As Padouk and Jumper have said, a balloon (techno-jargon buzzword: HALO, high-ALtitude object) will at some point reach a maximum altitude and stop rising. I don't think I agree that it will necessarily pop, but it WILL reach equilibrium. The Japanese, in particular, have been doing a lot more research than us on this, and have developed some ultr-thin balloon material, and they hold the world's altitude record, at 53.0 kilometers (32.93 miles).

The limitation on going much higher seems to be the technological one of producing a material strong enough yet light enough, but which meanwhile doesn't leak helium at a rate higher than lift.

There is probably a theoretical absolute maximum altitude a balloon could achieve, but to find it you'd have to start getting into impossibly thin theoretical weights for skin material. Also at that altitude, you start getting problems with heating and cooling, depending on which side is facing the sun, etc.

So yes, right now the max appears to be approximately 33 miles, and tinkering may add incrementally small amounts to that, but I suspect we are about maxed out in terms of practicality (is the difference between 33 miles and 33.1 miles worth the incremental effort? Probably not.)

Because the next step in the application is to ask what it is one wants to *do* with a balloon at 30-some miles. And then one begins to start discussing payloads, and so the balloon gets heavier right away, and so altitude decreases. So then it becomes a trade-off between a totally payloadless balloon that might reach, say 34 miles, but to what purpose? versus one with a bit of useful payload that only reaches, say 29 miles.

Posted by: curmudgeon-1 | February 12, 2009 11:02 AM | Report abuse

Yoki, I think the space turtles that the earth is riding around on get first dibs.

Posted by: Boko999 | February 12, 2009 11:02 AM | Report abuse

Gamera's agent is on line 2, RD_P...

Posted by: Scottynuke | February 12, 2009 11:02 AM | Report abuse

New Kit, BTW...

Posted by: Scottynuke | February 12, 2009 11:03 AM | Report abuse

The Chinese government destroyed a satellite a while back, creating a debris field. But wasn't that considerably lower?

Posted by: DaveoftheCoonties | February 12, 2009 11:08 AM | Report abuse

You are right Mudge. It need not pop, of course. I was thinking about those balloons you get at the state fair.

Posted by: RD_Padouk | February 12, 2009 11:24 AM | Report abuse

The Chinese anti-sat shot pretty much doubled the number of trackable items in orbit.

Posted by: RD_Padouk | February 12, 2009 11:26 AM | Report abuse

New kit

Posted by: RD_Padouk | February 12, 2009 11:29 AM | Report abuse

"The Hubble Space Telescope is in that vicinity (If you can have a "vicinity" that's a three-dimensional volume surrounding the entire Earth -- my lexicon is overtaxed in trying to describe the geometry)."

Joel is crying for help, and all we do is discuss the physics of HALOs?

The geometry of the vicinity depends on orbits, angular momentums, gravity, and other big words. "Precession" scares me, so let's leave it alone, ok?

If the debris followed the orbit of one satellite due to momentum, the vicinity would look like a donut, but we will call it a torus because it's more scientifical.

But there are two momenta from two satellites, so we have at a minimum two intersecting toroids, a concept so understudied that Google only gives three results (when combined with the search term "topology" and none of them produce a name, so we have to be satisfied with description - two doubly-intersection toroids.

That's probably less informative than just writing "vicinity". Sometimes ignorance is useful.

Posted by: j2hess | February 12, 2009 6:54 PM | Report abuse

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