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Tuesday, February 21, 2012

NASA Taking On Orbital Debris Problem, Seriously.

If you've been living under a towel for the last five years, here's the quick update:

Orbital debris are bad because when they hit the spacecraft that broadcast Sirius Satellite Radio, you can't listen to Howard Stern. Current studies to fix the problem are nominally funded and inconclusive because the current political establishment is too busy occupying middle east countries where poppies are grown. Our government tells us this is important because we don't want those countries to export products to the US and specifically California where the poppy is the national flower. However, the longer the orbital debris problem is neglected, the worse it gets and seeing as there are no easy fixes, it might soon be necessary to go back to listening to Howard on the old FM radio.

Boink by TomPreston

Let's talk about funding. The current US administration is spending more money on air conditioning temporary structures in Afghanistan (17 billion) than it does on the entire NASA budget. As a young researcher this is sending me the signals that I should have specialized in HVAC (heating, ventilation, air conditioning) rather than Aerospace. Giving credit where credit is due, NASA has funded a few preliminary studies and a few senior researchers to "study the problem". Some private companies are working on this as well as people over at the AFRL. However, it's clear that since orbital debris isn't a clear and present danger, it will go by the wayside until the military can't launch anymore satellites because they've clogged up the majority of Low Earth Orbit. At that time, maybe they will suggest launching air conditioners at orbital debris in order to destroy them and thus negate the problem. This would be a effective way to use that 17 billion they needed to spend on HVAC while making the orbital debris problem worse.

Let's talk about services. Spacecraft or satellites power the most advanced communications system the world has ever know. Satellite TV, Satellite Radio, Satellite Phones, Military Communications, GPS, the internet backbone are critical services that to do without would be a singularly first world problem. Do you really want to go down to AAA and get a paper map and read it? (Those things don't even talk to you to tell you directions so you might have to resort to traveling with a navigator.) Internet bakckhaul is done via satellite because it can send and receive massive amounts of data through channels that China can't accidentally drop anchors on. Additionally, satellites provide internet in rural areas, ensuring that every crazy American that lives in the middle of nowhere can be a net citizen. Probably most importantly, the military uses spacecraft to spy on truculent countries that like building nuclear refinement facilities for "peaceful purposes" while at the same time suggesting that it would be a shame if Israel should exist next year (see Iran). Most importantly, you might use satellites to listen to Howard Stern or catch the latest episode of the Bachelor on Satellite TV or Radio. Needless to say, satellites make up an integral part of our lives and we can't live (happily) without them.

Let's talk about orbital debris. Basically, every satellite that any country has ever launched that has not burned up in Earth's atmosphere is still orbiting the earth and can be though of as debris. Those satellites that are still functioning and can maneuver are typically excluded from this class until their run out of fuel and are rendered lifeless hulks of space junk. The average lifespan of a new satellite is around 15 years (18 from the best manufacturers). However, after those 15 years are done, the satellite sits around in space, slowly falling apart. Little pieces and large pieces go everywhere, filling the final orbit of the satellite with debris that can damage or disable other functioning satellites that are in the same orbit. There is only so much space, in space. This means that the more satellites that we put into orbits like GEO, which service the majority of TV and Radio services, the larger chance that they are destroyed by an older satellite that went offline years ago. Without active cleaning of the environment, the most important orbits will become filled with debris and will become unusable. As a consumer this means that you might have to pay double or triple for the same service you are receiving today because the supplier has to put up 3 satellites instead of 1.

Let's talk about Space Policy. Basically, it's all up in the air. There are some non-binding resolutions but there is nothing substantial that commits counties or governments to limiting or controlling the debris they release into the space environment. It's like being able to drive on the freeway and throw nails out your window with the clear and comforting knowledge that if you are pulled over by a cop, he will not you have a tail light out and nothing more.This type of international laze-fare is an antiquated notion and was excellently suited to a world where few countries had the capabilities to launch satellites. Now that basically every country can launch satellites that beam back patriotic songs, or broadcast Howard Stern, the amount of junk in the space trunk has grown to epic proportions. However, since there have been no binding policy decisions, each country acts on their own and most don't care to fix a problem that no one else will address.

I'll leave you with these words: It won't all work out if you just wrap your head in a towel. Without some sort of binding international resolution with incentives and penalties, the space environment will become unusable, or at least, much more expensive to use. Just remember, if you like you're satellite TV or radio, imagine paying 3x for the same service. So I encourage you to write your congressman, senators, and any other representatives that you can blackmail by withholding votes and tell them to do something about this issue. If they hold out, just remind them that they can roll in the military air conditioning budget and kill all the satellites in one go.

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