Wednesday, February 20, 2008

The Sorcerer's Apprentice

I may not be a rocket scientist, but I am certain I would be fired if I designed a satellite that had non-redundant systems or built-in kill switches. Those engineers who design a craft such as the USA 193 shot "down" a couple of nights back should be made to go up into low earth orbit with brooms and dustpans to collect any debris which is lingering too long before begin a fateful descent in our atmosphere.

Launching a satellite into orbit is a very risky proposition, with a myriad of things which could go wrong. Even getting the delivery rocket off the launchpad is no sure bet, as evidenced by the frequent mishaps by the European Space Agency, NASA, and whoever is responsible for the Chinese and Russian space programs these days. But at least launches have someone with a self-destruct button in hand to press if the rocket malfunctions.

Not, apparently, for the satellites themselves. I can understand that oft-times satellites spin out of control, antennae don't deploy, on-board computers freeze (I bet they're not Macs) power systems power down, or whatever. But when you are spending many tens of millions of dollars on these orbiting future debris fields, wouldn't you want to build in a number of ways to work around the problem or at least down the craft if things fuck up beyond redemption?

And the report of the impact "fireball" meant to allay fears of hydrazine being spewed over hill and dale simply translates into my mind as more small pieces of crap forming a fragmentary mine filed around our planet.

I look at my computer system at work - it has a plethora of backups for any of the works of genius I've produced (LOL), and if the power should cut out there is a battery and an UPS (uninterruptible power supply) to maintain some current long enough to save your data or, presumably, fix the problem.

Here is my main concern - the Kessler Syndrome. It posits that the amount of crap encircling our our blue planet will grow to such a degree as to render any incursion into space too risky, even for unmanned craft. The tinking is that space debris multiplies exponentially - a mere 1 cm piece could destroy another satellite creating another couple of thousand pieces of junk with the potential to destroy. And so on . . .

A number of solutions have been proposed here, but wouldn't it be much simpler to design satellite systems which have the built-in capacity to direct a whole satellite towards the earth if a certain set of instructions are not delivered with a requisite amount of time? Or hurtling out outwards beyond the earth's gravity to screw up some space craft from Alpha Centauri in a few thousand years?

But at the root of my consternation is the fear that I will miss the spaceship the next time comet Hale-Bopp comes around. I mean, look at all that crap circling earth right now:

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3 Comments:

Blogger The Phosgene Kid said...

Bored screwing up earth, starting on space.

12:39 PM  
Blogger nanuk said...

Apparently this debris field includes gloves and a set of binoculars. Now how could anyone lose their gloves in deep space without exploding from the pressure differential? Or is there a missing astronaut we don't know about?

7:55 AM  
Blogger The Phosgene Kid said...

They toss old stuff out of the space station - don't know if you saw them give that old space suit the heave-ho, but the astronauts equipped it with radios so amateur astronomers could track it.

11:42 PM  

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