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A high stakes game is in play in near-earth orbit with hundreds of players, all in high-speed motion.

minor pun alert

I know this is not a purely political topic, but I thought all of us needed a break from the frustrations of a dysfunctional Congress and the persistent efforts of wingnuts.

You can make a connection between this and politics if you like by thinking of the implications of a global satellite failure from a multi-collision event in space - partial to complete interruptions in satellite TV, cell phones, GPS, high-tech military functions, weather forecasts, crop condition sampling, etc.  Perhaps even triggering a cold war doomsday device?

Shouldn't nations with satellites in space cooperate in the effort to avoid collisions as they do with air traffic control?  A recent meeting in October addressed space traffic control:

Since the Iridium telecommunications satellite was taken out by a 'dead' Russian Cosmos satellite last February, creating a hazard to the International Space Station, our U.S. Air Force has decided to gear up to attempt to track 500 more of the non-motile satellites and known larger pieces of debris as well as the 800 satellites which have some maneuvering capability that they currently monitor.  Fueled satellites allow for some game play using orbital maneuvering thrusters to try to avoid white-knuckle near-miss events which are becoming more frequent with time - see recent Air Force Space Command recruiting video:

Designing orbital adjustment maneuvers to not just avoid a current collision crisis but to reduce future collisions reminds me of billiards, only with 'balls' weighing from a few ounces up to a ton or more and constantly in motion in 3D at thousands of mile per hour.  The complexity increases as the number of objects in orbit increases.  Compare the modest tracking plans of the USAF to monitor 1300 objects to the actual problem:

"There are some 4,000 rocket bodies and satellites, dead or alive, orbiting Earth. In addition, more than 6,000 other large, observable and tracked bits of debris float around up there. More than 200,000 smaller bits bigger than 1 centimeter -- still potentially dangerous but not tracked -- are thought to be in orbit. Much of this material moves at 17,500 mph."

It didn't help the situation when China decided to ballistically destroy one of their own satellites in orbit this year in a demonstration of military prowess, producing innumerable new little missiles.

If no effort is made to reduce the number of objects sharing similar orbits, there is a chance of a chain reaction - a series of collisions, one leading to the next as orbits get altered - potential for one collision leading to two to four to eight, etc.  This chain reaction scenario should have a vanishingly small probability of occurrence but as more and more single collisions occur, the number of objects involved explodes, somewhat mitigated by the direction of most of the debris being spherical in an explosion in microgravity - away from the common orbital paths.  This is much more complicated than billiards in that most of the collisions will not predictably produce 'clean' changes in direction or nice spherical explosions but flatter angle results highly dependent on the individual circumstances of each collision that will defy the best computer analysis.

This is a messy orbital mechanics problem that some modelers will delight in trying to solve with supercomputers, but ultimately the game will come down to reducing the amount of objects in play and responding in real time to each collision crisis with small adjustments - trying to avoid getting channeled into a multi-collision.

I hope NASA or the Air Force realize the value of videos of actual space debris collisions as a general public space science interest piece and recruiting tool.

As far as political issues to discuss - consider military vs. civilian satellite programs in politically diverse countries who can't even agree to do something about climate change much less the more immediate threat to their expensive satellites.  A global 'conversation' has begun due to the Iridium satellite's destruction, but so far no concrete steps at a cooperative systematized effort.  

In the history of space exploration, every time countries shared and cooperated in the effort, good things have happened.  Non-cooperation only leads to destruction and hardship.  This space traffic control thing could be a another pathway toward a more generalized group effort toward peaceful global cooperation.

Originally posted to ProgressiveConservator on Wed Nov 04, 2009 at 12:15 PM PST.

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