Friday, 13 February 2009

Global Communications Collapse Scenario

Apparently 58% of the world's 1.2bn email users send messages every day and yet while one in four companies said they would experience reduced productivity if their email system failed only one in 17 can meet regulatory compliance [1, 2].

So when I read something like this (about the biggest recorded crash between two orbiting satellites) I start to have visions of how quickly things could go wrong.

And that's just email - let's not even start considering telephony, broadcasting, meteorological surveying or other communications networks, all of which are highly dependent on satellite network infrastructure.

The biggest problem with any collision in space however, is our inability to clear up afterwards. All the debris has to go somewhere and as it disperses so it gradually creates a cloud of smaller particle each of which can cause major damage to any other orbiting object (at over 1,000 mph a fleck of paint half the size of a grain of rice can penetrate several inches of bulletproof glass sufficiently to weaken the structural integrity of a space shuttle - glass which is designed to be heat resistant to over 1500C [reference]).

There are 17,000 tracked objects of larger than 10cm circulating around the planet - each with different paths and vector trajectories, which makes for some frighteningly difficult maths in calculating the chances of an impact - imagine trying to take off from a major international airport without any air traffic control, and then add in flocks of migrating birds.

When a collision takes place the debris scatters in a torus and migrates into a new unpredictable orbit with some reentering the earth's atmosphere where it burns up and other particles drifting off into outer space. And with only around half of the 6,000 satelites launched since the beginning of the space programme still in service that makes for a lot of space litter (picture the equatorial rings of Saturn made up entirely of obsolete technological junk) - every single piece of new debris increases the potential for new damage exponentially.

It is so easy to forget in the cosseted security blanket of capitalism just how tenuous this existence is. Until recently the European Space Agency didn't even consider space surveillance a priority and had to be informed retrospectively by NASA when a close encounter between a Chinese orbiter and a European weather satellite occurred.

So, does this all show a need for a universal umbrella organisation of space agencies to facilitate co-ordination between different systems, or does it prove how intransigent and unweildy state organisations are?

With the prospect of space tourism and commercial flights to the moon in the near future, private multi-national corporations clearly see space as the next frontier to be conquered, but is shareholder accountability enough to ensure sufficient oversight without any conflicts of interest?

1 comment:


Surely we're not talking space - we're talking orbits? - i.e all the stuff in one band flying round the planet.

If Richard Branson's planetship 1 gets hit by an old sputnik - do we need to know?