Space: The Crowded Frontier


In what Reuters is reporting as a first, two satellites orbiting at around 485 miles up have collided:

The crash, which took place on Tuesday above Russia's Arctic north, involved a spacecraft of Iridium Satellite LLC and a Russian communications satellite, said Air Force Colonel Les Kodlick of the U.S. Strategic Command…..

The command's Joint Space Operations Center is tracking 500 to 600 new bits of debris, some as small as 4 inches across, in addition to the 18,000 or so other man-made objects it previously catalogued in space, Kodlick said.

Bethesda, Maryland-based Iridium operates the world's largest commercial satellite constellation made up of some 66 cross-linked satellites plus orbiting spares. It provides voice and data services for areas not served by ground-based communications networks.

The operation remained healthy, though some customers may experience brief outages pending a temporary fix expected to be in place by Friday, said Liz DeCastro, an Iridium spokeswoman……

The Russian craft, a barrel-shaped cylinder with a mass of 1,800 to 1,900 pounds (800 to 850 kg) known as Cosmos 2251, was launched in June 1993 and probably stopped working five to 10 years ago, he said.

Katherine Mangu-Ward wrote about a burgeoning wave of private space entrepreneurs scheming to further crowd Earth's orbit for the good of humanity's future, and hopefully their pocketbooks, for Reason magazine's January 2007 issue.

NEXT: That's Some Fine Police Work

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  1. Viktor Koman: Kings of the High Frontier

  2. *Blah blah blah* Simpsons *blah blah blah* Major League Baseball *blah blah blah* haha!

  3. Space enterprise needs to be regulated further. For the good of the children!

  4. The revolution begins in Burns Flat Oklahoma baby!

  5. meh – it’s not like there’s a lot of room up there, or anything…

    I’d say we better hurry and initiate Spock’s plan (above). We don’t have time to study the issue, we’d better act.

  6. Take that, commie satellites!

  7. If only Reason had the guts to ask the tough question of satellites, as outlined in my plan here, and encouraged other bloggers to do the same, maybe these kinds of things can be stopped.

    I guess they are too interested in going after the low-orbiting fruit.

  8. So that’s a Russian hunter-killer satellite, eh? Kind slow, isn’t it?

  9. At some point we are going to have to try and clean up some of that mess or face damage to our highly useful satellite network. Seriously. Space is big, but the number of useful orbits is a lot more finite.

  10. Tragedy of the commons?

    Nobody has any incentive to keep space clear of debris, or to remove non-functional satellites from orbit. And so, it accumulates, and multiplies.

    This collision added hundreds more pieces of debris, each of which has the potential to destroy other satellites, creating even more debris.

    In time, it could be nearly impossible to launch anything into orbit without it being bombarded and obliterated by flying space junk.

    Anybody with a good clean-up plan could make some serious money.

    (Capitalist disclaimer: As soon as I heard this news, I considered shorting Sirius/XM stock, but it was already trading at a nickel.)

  11. Does space debris like this endanger the international space station?

  12. “Does space debris like this endanger the international space station?”

    Unlikely, but possible. The space station orbits at a much lower altitude. The probability of impact is low, but unless you can track the trajectory of each new piece of debris, you can’t rule it out.

  13. Russ,

    Kan MacLeod wrote a fairly well done exploration of orbital debris being so thick as to shut down space travel for decades. The Sky Road

  14. Kan MacLeod wrote a fairly well done exploration of orbital debris being so thick as to shut down space travel for decades.

    Not to mention Pixar.

  15. Space enterprise needs to be regulated further. For the good of the children!

    Does Spock mean the children in the vault of tomorrow?

  16. Isnt one of the “problems” with a space elevator being that it will take down a significant percentage of the satellites in orbit?

    Sounds like a solution, not a problem.

  17. R C Dean,

    So that was a component of WALL-E? I missed that 98 Minutes Hate on purpose.

  18. I’m mostly concerned about my DirecTV transmission. Other than that…eh.

  19. Okay, this is off topic, but I think that there was an unanticipated negative consequence of electing Obama. Look at the video of the monkey (NSFW) linked above, a disproportionate number of the comments are Obama related. I think the internet might be getting even stupider. The level of discourse in the youtube comments on a video of a monkey drinking its urine has been lowered.

  20. We need to start thinking about how to turn orbits into property.

    Eventually, space will get crowded enough that we will have to have some system of allocating orbits to specific uses. It’s either a property system or a system of international socialism i.e. who can pay the biggest bribe to the international bureaucrat.

    Alert the physicist, orbit-property is going to take a lot math.

  21. I see an interesting market here. An orbital trashman who guarantees to clean debris and dead satellites out of the orbital paths of your hundred million dollar satellites. Think of it as a cost of doing business and your insurance premiums should reflect it. This doesn’t require carving the orbital commons into real-estate quite yet.

  22. On topic, the orbital trashman is a concept used in the hard science fiction series Planetes. An example of just how accurate they make it: When showing a conversation between a lunar base and a space station near earth, they accurately depict the delay caused by the distance. One of the major plot points is the possibility of Kessler Syndrome: The possibility that orbital collisions could set up a chain reaction creating so much debris that space travel becomes impractical or impossible.

  23. I firmly believe our first contact with extraterretrial intelligence will be a rundown ship full of redneck aliens asking if they can have our junk.

  24. Actually, there is an incentive *not* to pollute the space around Earth: the guys launching satellites (ie putting the debris in orbit) don’t want them damaged.

    I would expect that this event will spur negotiations between major satellite operators to figure out a way to eliminate collision risk.

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