Daily Archives: April 5, 2019

A World without Satellites

By Lindsay Roseberry, Reference Department

As Richard Hollingham said, “without satellites, the world would be a very different place, [since] the infrastructure we all rely on has become increasingly dependent on space technology.”  Satellites, of course, help us find directions on our smart phone, but they do so much more. They allow trans-oceanic communication; they keep track of weather; they give us warnings about tornadoes; they help our military track other military parties (and help other militaries track us); and they allow us to have television in remote areas with a satellite dish (dish network).

So what would happen if the satellites crashed or fell??  We could say goodbye to accurately predicting the weather, especially the storms and tornadoes.  Trans-oceanic communication would be in trouble.  AND we would no longer be able to us our cell phones for directions- we would have to rely on maps, and not the ones on the computer, such as Google maps—they rely on satellites as well.  We’re talking giant paper fold out maps.  People would have to come to the library to use old-fashioned atlases… (an aside: Did you know that our dependence on GPS (thank a satellite) is making us have more trouble figuring out where to go without them?  There are reports that our brains are not retaining this information and that may yet have effects on us. )

So if anything ever happens to the satellites (or just to your phone), Travel and Leisure shares some tips about navigating with a paper map, and without the mostly reliable GPS:

  • Check the orientation (look for the compass rose that denotes north – this way you will not get the map upside down
  • Check the scale – is the scale an inch to a mile or to 50 miles?  It truly will make a difference in the time needed to get to your destination
  • Take a look at the legend—this is a key to what is shown on the map.  Places like restaurants, bathrooms, toll roads, rivers and more can be shown, depending on the legend
  • Know how to use a compass (assuming you brought a compass along with you)
  • Check out the topographic maps, or sections.  These would show you where woods, steams, mountains and hills are along your route.  Sometimes even gas stations and camping grounds.

Richard Hollingham also provides a well-thought out possible future if satellites do fall from the sky in a scenario from the BBC.  After listening to several speakers on the subject, BBC Future shared this timeline with the world.  In the span of a day, severe disruptions would appear in our transpot, communications, power, and computer systems and governments would be struggling to cope.  The public order would start to break down, and that was just day one. Hollingham gives credit to Orson Welles as he describes what would happen as a sequence of events.

But what could take out the satellites? Science fiction authors have explored this scenario endlessly, and so have the armed forces.  Ignoring unlikely options such as alien invasions and time traveling egomaniacs, there are still several possible scenarios.  Satellites could be deliberately knocked out by enemy nations, but most experts think this would be self-defeating, since this could also harm other nation’s satellites as well.   A massive solar storm is always a possibility, which actually did happen in 1859 (the Carrington Event), but of course, we didn’t have anything in space then.  Then, there is the Kessler Syndrome; this one you might know more about.  This event was used in the movie Gravity, starring Sandra Bullock and George Clooney.  A missile strike, an asteroid, or something else strikes a satellite, then that satellite hits another one and so on until most if not all of the satellites are inoperable or destroyed.  It could definitely happen.  There is so much space junk up in space that this is completely plausible.

So what are the problems with space trash?  Consider:  while there are around 1,000 functional satellites in space, there are more than twice as many derelict and decommissioned satellites. Some 34,000 objects larger than ten centimeters (!!) have been observed by radar or telescope. For objects between one and ten centimeters, that number jumps up to over half a million. Debris less than one centimeter in size exist in the millions. Actually, Earth is surrounded by a huge cloud of space junk.  Why is this a problem?  Isn’t space huge??  So why would a loose screw or a fleck of paint floating around in space be so dangerous? Because debris can travel at speeds of up to 17,500 miles per hour. Even something as small and soft as a paint fleck can damage spacecraft or satellites when moving at such velocities.  In fact, NASA has been forced to replace many space shuttle windows damaged by paint flecks. If a larger, ten-centimeter piece of space debris was to collide with something like the International Space Station, the damage would be potentially catastrophic.  Another problem is that space debris hitting other space debris create more debris, which create more debris, etc.

Space Debris surrounding Earth

Astrophysicist and former NASA scientist Donald Kessler predicted this exact phenomenon in 1978. Shortly thereafter, a fellow astrophysicist, John Gabbard, coined the term Kessler Syndrome to describe this cascading effect. According to Donald Kessler, it is possible that the debris cloud will eventually grow so large as to prevent future operations within Earth’s orbit. That would translate into a future without weather forecasts, telecom, satellite-assisted navigation, or research satellites.

But what proactive measures can be taken to reduce debris in Earth’s orbit?  Dr.Kessler has suggested that removing just five to ten inoperable satellites a year could halt the exponential growth of space debris. In recent years, a few plans have been suggested to proactively reduce space debris. For example, the Australian National University is developing a laser that can track, target, and destroy space debris. Likewise, the Japanese Space Agency (JAXA) has partnered with a private company to develop a massive 700-meter long aluminum and steel net to sweep up space debris. Other plans call for solar sails and various types of capture mechanisms such as robotic arms and space sling shots.  Whatever is planned in the short or long time will take detailed planning and will be a long-term project.

Photo by Frerk Meyer

If you find this interesting, we’ll continue exploring the universe and space during our annual Summer Reading Program for Grown-Ups.  Take a look at some of our special events this summer:

  • An astronomy petting zoo on Thursday, May 23 – have you ever wanted to buy a telescope but didn’t know which one to get?  Come to his program and  narrow down your choices
  • On Saturday, June 15 we’ll be having a film festival of some of the best movies about space.  Stay tuned for titles!
  • On Saturday, July 6, we’ll be having a Cosmos marathon.  Wondering whether it will be hosted by Carl Sagan or Neil DeGrasse Tyson?  Make sure to sign up for our newsletter and check our website for more information.
  • On Saturday, July 20, we’ll be making a day of commemorating the 50th anniversary of NASA’s moon landing.  Movies, refreshments, lectures and more!!
  • On Tuesday, July 23, we’re offering a program about all the inventions NASA created for the space program that we use almost every day!
  • We will also have Dr. Billy Teets from Vanderbilt Dyer Observatory coming to talk and Dr. David Weintraub, a professor at Vanderbilt, will be talking about Life on Mars

Sources:

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