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

Tuesday 6 September 2011

Per garbage ad astra

There's something rather unsettling about a former NASA scientist admitting 'We've lost control of the environment' - it's the sort of line that's usually followed by the arrival of a bunch of voracious extra-terrestrials and a lot of special-effects gore.

This time we're perfectly safe, as long as we stay put here on earth. For those, venturing into orbit, however, the amount of debris out there has reached a critical point, according to a report submitted to NASA last week.

It seems we've left so much rubbish lying - or floating - around up there that we may have effectively prevented ourselves getting out. (Much the same thing, interestingly enough, seems to happen regularly with the Urchin's bedroom floor - perhaps it's simply human nature.)

Part of the problem is our increasing dependence on satellite technology; with an average of 76 satellites a year launched over the past decade and more planned for the future to feed our insatiable need for communication technology, it's getting awfully crowded up there even without the rubbish.

Add in the myriad pieces of debris, from chunks of rocket down to minuscule flecks of paint, and you effectively have a cage in which we have managed to imprison ourselves; astronauts who honed their skills on games of Asteroids in the pub now apply the techniques for real to evade rogue particles.

And - guess what! - it turns out we've been naughty in more ways than one: 'The extra CO2 pumped into the atmosphere down the years has cooled some of its highest reaches - the thermosphere.

This, combined with low levels of solar activity, have shrunk the atmosphere, limiting the amount of drag on orbital objects that ordinarily helps to pull debris from the sky. In other words, the junk is also staying up longer.'

Well, it never rains but it pours! And it could get worse - though this particular aspect of the situation has not so far made the news. Regular readers may recall that we have mentioned this subject here before, and touched on another aspect of the potential Nemesis floating above us:

'... in ‘The Day of the Triffids’ it was the release of biological weapons from accidentally damaged satellites which ultimately paved the way for the destruction of human civilization as we know it.'

Computer models suggests the amount of debris "has reached a tipping point, with enough currently in orbit to continually collide and create even more debris, raising the risk of spacecraft failures."  Even if we escape the disastrous effect John Wyndham envisaged, we could be effectively marooned on earth until we do a bit of cosmic housework.

Update: The Mail reports this morning that Phase One of  Richard Branson's Spaceport America is now 90%complete, with commercial space flights being planned for early 2013. Should you feel like taking your chance up there in the craposphere, you can secure your seat reservation with Virgin Galactic (yes, honestly!) for a deposit of only $20,000.


  1. "we may have effectively prevented ourselves leaving the planet"

    Ah well - that's another escape plan to scrub off my list.

  2. Yes, I suppose it's hardly as if you had the option of popping off to Alpha Centauri for the weekend - unless you know something I don't.

    I can't help wondering whether, somewhere out there, some small green furry things are heaving a sigh of relief; "Well, that solves the problem of what to do about mankind for the time being, anyway!"


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