Do The Freakin Math

Liberals and conservatives alike frequently rely on limited evidence, personal experience, religious beliefs or gut emotions to determine solutions for complex problems. From immigration to global warming - taxes to terrorism - or health care to free trade - analytical study is rare. Science based policy making isn’t the way of Washington. And the consequences are catastrophic. Change is urgently needed. Just do the freakin’ math.

Friday, October 28, 2011

Space! The final frontier, if we can get past the trash.

Our nation’s satellite communications, meteorological and GPS systems are the foundation of America’s traditional military national security system as well as our vital infrastructure and addictive comforts. This is our Achilles heel that has at least three serious vulnerabilities.
In 2007 China demonstrated its capacity to hit that heel when it destroyed one of its own weather satellites with a direct hit from one of their own surface to space missiles. That ‘test’ intended to send a message to the US but it also created over 150,000 pieces of debris. It’s possible that the loss of a few of our key satellites would render many of or most powerful weapons systems blind.
With other nation’s launching satellites into space and acquiring missile and drone technologies that can match, assist or surpass China’s capability our Achilles heel will grow in vulnerability. And without an enforceable set of global rules and regulations an arms race in space appears inevitable. Given China’s growing economic and technological prowess, this is an arms race we may be destined to lose.
But even if humanity never sends up another rocket, there is another inevitable lethal threat to our nation’s dependence on space technology. Space junk. According to NASA there are tens of millions of pieces that space age nations have left in the heavenly region above earth since we started launching satellites over 50 years ago. Most trash pieces are much smaller in diameter than a baseball, with the majority being as small as screws or flecks of paint. But, the U.S. Space Surveillance Network is currently tracking approximately 22,000 pieces of orbital trash that are 4 inches in diameter or greater.
Still, some of the tiniest pieces of space trash can seriously damage or destroy a satellite when they collide at 17,500 miles per hour (orbital velocity) or faster. The kinetic force of almost any object at “a not-unreasonable relative velocity of, say five miles per second” could splinter another object or even a satellite into thousands of other pieces. Each piece then increasing the odds of creating more collisions. And when satellites accidently collide as two did in 2009 (a retired Russian communication satellite Cosmos 2251 with the US privately owned satellite Iridium) tens of thousands of new lethal trajectories can be created.
Defending satellites against small pieces of space trash is possible but expensive. The International Space Station has been covered with over 100 shields made from aluminum, ceramic and Kevlar fiber that can protect against objects smaller than half an inch. Taking evasive maneuvers against larger objects - as the International Space Station has done at least six times - can cost precious fuel and shorten the lifespan of the satellite.
As even a child can imagine, the inevitable collision of any combination of existing satellites and junk will create a runaway cascade of debris that will render space virtually unusable for any future scientific, private, militaristic or extraterrestrial endeavors.
Gravity, over decades will gradually remove some pieces. And intentional removal of space debris is certainly feasible. But it won’t be cheap. There are already dozens of ideas for junk recovery on the drawing board but it is unlikely we will be able to afford any of them given the our current inability for finding adequate financial resources essential for dealing with a growing array of problems down here on earth. Problems which arise from, or are perpetuated by, the unworkability of our world’s current ‘national sovereignty’ paradigm. It simply doesn’t allow for the democratic creation and global enforcement of universal rules and regulations.

Conclusion: Whether exploring for oil or other vital earth resources, tracking climate change or the movement of enemy troops, we depend on our eyes in the sky for our security and essential needs. If just one nation or corporation is allowed to trash the heavenly commons, no one will be spared the potentially catastrophic consequences. Enforceable global rules and regulations, democratically acquired and protective of humanities most basic human rights...is essential to a sustainable future of peace, prosperity and unprecedented freedoms. The key question is ‘Can we overcome our earthly worship of ‘national sovereignty’ to ensure a world that works for all.

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