Keep Your Eyes On The Skies

It’s bad enough that the Earth’s atmosphere is clogged with obsolete satellites and space junk of various shapes and sizes.  Now we are being warned that some of this stuff is going to come plunging to the ground as orbits decay and the inexorable tug of the Earth’s gravity becomes irresistible.

NASA is warning that the Upper Atmosphere Research Satellite — which weighs 6.5 tons — is expected to re-enter Earth’s atmosphere in an uncontrolled fall in late September or early October.  Of course, much of the satellite is expected to burn up on re-entry, but some of its component parts are predicted to survive and strike the Earth’s surface.

NASA officials note that, even after decades of re-entering debris raining onto the Earth’s surface, there are no confirmed reports of any actual injuries to people caused by the fall of fiery remnants of satellites gone by.  Even Skylab, the much larger space laboratory that plunged to Earth in 1979 — and became the butt of many jokes, including John Belushi’s classic piece on Saturday Night Live’s Weekend Update, below — fell into the Pacific Ocean and remote parts of Australia without causing any apparent harm to humans.

Still, at times like this I’m glad that the Earth’s surface is mostly ocean.


Space Littering

There is so much junk orbiting Earth that it poses hazards to navigation in space, according to a study by the National Research Council.

The U.S. Space Surveillance Network tracks more than 16,000 pieces of debris orbiting the Earth.  The junk includes spent rocket bodies, unused satellites, and other discarded materials — all of which are circling the globe at speeds of more than 17,000 miles per hour.  A lot of the debris was generated when the Chinese government unwisely used a discarded weather satellite as a target for an anti-satellite missile test. There already have been space collisions, and experts fear that the amount of junk will cause even more crashes and damage to vehicles exiting and entering Earth’s atmosphere.

Imagine — there were no man-made objects in Earth orbit until the Russians launched Sputnik in the late 1950s, and only five decades later we have reached a “tipping point” of space debris.  Human beings apparently are just inveterate litterbugs, no matter where they go.  Where is Iron Eyes Cody when we really need him?