Of all the animals of prey, man is the only sociable one.
Every one of us preys upon his neighbour, and yet we herd together.
The Beggar's Opera: John Gay

Friday 9 September 2011

'We have nothing to fear but the sky falling on our heads!'

Hot on the heels of the announcement of orbital debris reaching a 'tipping point' comes the news that a 6.5-tonne satellite is on its way down and will be liberally spreading debris over a wide area sometime in the next few weeks.

Despite official announcements that the chances of being underneath a piece of it are very small indeed, the Times is getting entertainingly worked up about the potential hazard:

'Britain in path of falling satellite', screams the headline, implying that a direct hit is inevitable; better start looking for tin hats, digging shelters or, better still, think about leaving the country.

Actually that might not be much help; a better decription of the impending situation would be 'Antarctica and anywhere further than 57 degrees North NOT in path of falling satellite' - less catchy, I admit, but it does sum up the predictions in a rather more balanced way.

In fact, unless you happen to be in Alaska, Canada (north of Churchill), Greenland, Iceland, Scandanavia or Siberia - or, closer to home, anwhere north of Braemar - you could be on the receiving end of a sprinkling of NASA shrapnel. Given the price of gold these days and the amount of the stuff that goes into making a satellite, this could be cause for rejoicing rather than otherwise*.

The current eccentricity of its orbit makes it impossible to predict where the 500-mile-long target area will be at this stage but NASA will be posting regular updates for the obsessively worried (would-be Chicken Lickens can get status reports here).

The satellite in question - the snappily-named UARS (Upper Atmosphere Research Satellite) - was actually expected to function for only three years but pluckily carried on for another eleven, gathering data on the depletion of the ozone layer and clearly implicating the release of man-made CFCs.

Perhaps a better name for it would be The Golden Snitch.

*We should point out that the satellite remains federal property and, should you put a bit of it on e-bay, Uncle Sam's enforcers will be popping round pretty sharp-ish.


  1. All I was thinking about while reading that was putting a bit of it on ebay, until I read the last paragraph.
    Do you not get some kind of salvage rights or something?

    If by a billion to one chance I do get a peice of it, the Yanks aren't having it back, I'll just put it in the spare room. It will make a good talking point for parties.

  2. Salvage rights? You're probably supposed to be satisfied with a sense of having done your duty for Motherhood and Apple Pie.

    Personally I'm currently compiling a list of people I'd like to see on the receiving end of a direct hit from the main chunk of the thing.


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