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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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Bizarre Inventions in History (even though they’re useful)

By Lon Maxwell, Reference Department

Since man learned that there were things in the natural world that he could bend and shape to make his life easier, inventors (however primitive they may have been at the start) have sought for new ways to make our lives easier. In some instances these inventions were stumbled across entirely by accident. Others, revolutionary at their time of inception, have become so common place that we rarely even remark on their origin. Yet these inventions and inventors have transfigured our daily life.

Think back to a time when early man began to use fire. Now we didn’t invent fire, it was most likely gathered naturally from lightning strikes and then kept burning in family shelters for up to centuries. Evidence of this can be found in a cave in China where a fire was kept burning for so long it left a bed of ashes twenty-two feet deep[i]. What they invented was a method to make fire on their own. Now, when you light your fire pit, gas oven or even just start your car, you don’t think about the amazingly complex reactions you’re continuing or their inventor. Similarly, many of the everyday inventions we use don’t even occur to us to be special.

Arguably the biggest impact on everyday life in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries comes in the form of the automobile. While steam trains predate the car, they were limited to the areas that their tracks ran leaving those outside the rail service stuck using the same method of transportation we’d been using for 5,000 years, the horse. Now a carriage comes along with nothing to pull it other than the torque provided by a new method of harnessing that fire our ancestors shepherded so carefully. It’s no wonder that some people thought the whole thing a ridiculous fad. Similarly, when we deigned to light our homes for thousands of years we burnt something: oil, wax, fat or natural gas. It is an amazing leap to move to light bulbs, something that just glowed with the application of electricity. The idea that you could just use these metal and glass contraptions that you hooked in to deadly electricity was considered quite dangerous, even by people who were used to lighting volatile natural gas in their lamps.

As you can see these inventions, along with vulcanized rubber, powered flight, assembly lines and telephones, made the turn of the nineteenth century a time when anybody could completely restructure our daily lives with the newest inventions. All of these things we take for granted were harebrained schemes and crazy pipedreams.

While many innovators have pushed the boundaries of our world with a will and determination, some have stumbled across ideas and devices completely by accident.  Things we’re all used to as models of modern engineering were originally flubs, failures and freak accidents.

Take the microwave for instance. Now you get home after a long day at work, too tired to cook and you throw some leftovers in a magic box for a minute or two and it comes out hot and ready to eat (well, except for the middle, that’s still ice cold).  You’d think some scientific genius would have brought this gift of intellect to us, but actually not so much. A man working with an especially strong magnetron to improve radar for the Raytheon Corporation noticed something odd. The gentleman in question was Percy Spencer, a self-taught grammar school dropout who worked hard enough and had enough natural brilliance to go from the paper mills of Maine to developing and producing radar equipment for M.I.T.’s Radiation Laboratory. He noticed that while working with the magnetron, the chocolate in his pocket melted. He wasn’t the first to see this, just the first to investigate why it happened. From this radar experiment he went on to try it on another food source, targeting a direct radar beam on the food produced a result, and now 70 years late countless households reenact his first experiments nightly when they microwaves bags of popcorn.[ii]

Matches were an accident as well. The lighter may seem newer, but it actually predates the match by three years. The new-fangled match was created when an English Pharmacist noticed a buildup of chemicals on his stirring stick. When he attempted to scrape off the offending chemicals, the stick ignited. That must have been a bit of a shock to Mr. Walker, the pharmacist in question. [iii]

By far my favorite happy accident was the Popsicle. Eleven year old Frank Epperson had been mixing a powdered fruit flavored beverage with a wooden stick. He left the drink out on a cold night and it froze. In the morning he warmed the glass and removed the ice block with its wooden stirring stick still frozen inside. By chance he took a lick of the ice and now children everywhere have one of their own to thank for one of the most famous frozen treats. [iv]

Even being at best absent minded, at worst lazy, can lead to one of the greatest inventions of all time. Dr. Alexander Fleming hadn’t cleaned his lab before leaving for his summer holidays. When he came back he found an untidy workspace that included some exposed petri dishes. Some had a strange mold on them that repelled the bacteria around it. After a little tinkering and some concerted mold culturing, Fleming was able to reproduce the accidental experiment, leading to the development of penicillin.[v]

Some inventions come into being like embryos, bearing a slight resemblance to the finished product. There are a great number of these out there that were crazy when they were first proposed, but are now gaining traction.

  • Yves Rossy may have finally perfected the Jet pack we’ve all been waiting for.
  • The Inter auto, a spool to spool map that moved as you drove was like a nascent GPS.
  • The Laryngophone, a means for speaking over telephone lines without use of your mouth has become the modern day throat mics of pilots.
  • Hugo Gernsback once decided to make a wearable pair of small cathode ray tubes to produce a 3D television experience. This concept is finally coming to fruition with google glass and all the VR headgear attachments you can buy for your smart phones.
  • Even the idea of the radio controlled lawn mower is reaching fruition. Who doesn’t want a remotely operated spinning blade moving across your yard? Roomba is readying a yard version of the famous vacuum for market.

The future may hold glorious new devices or more feasible innovations on weird ideas from the past. More unforeseen consequences may lead us to new discoveries. Something you see on the “as seen on TV” shelf may turn out to change the lives of every person on earth. You never know.


[i] The Cartoon History of the Universe Vols. 1-7 By Larry Gonick, 1990  902.07 GON

[ii] https://www.csmonitor.com/Technology/2012/1005/The-20-most-fascinating-accidental-inventions/Microwave-oven

[iii] http://www.historyofmatches.com/matches-history/who-invented-matches/

[iv] http://www.history.com/news/hungry-history/frozen-history-the-story-of-the-popsicle

[v] http://www.pbs.org/newshour/rundown/the-real-story-behind-the-worlds-first-antibiotic/

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