Pentagon Warns of Space Junk War
Technology Articles 2/6/11
By: Chris Capps
As the human race ascended to orbit around this small planet, some $250 billion were invested in putting communication satellites and other devices out in orbit. But with each new device placed into the orbit that serve a purpose, several more pieces of debris are scattered in a cloud around the planet threatening to cause a major catastrophe if a satellite collision were to take place. In the span of only a few days the entire system could be at risk if a satellite went rogue. And there are plenty of ways any given satellite could suddenly go rogue.
In 2010 we saw one of the first potential threats of a satellite suddenly going rogue and almost disrupting another one in the form of the Galaxy 15 which suddenly became a satellite "zombie" and started moving to disrupt the communications of another that could have resulted in the latter transmitting corrupted data back to Earth and ended up with the attached networks going down. Luckily the satellite passed harmlessly by, and a study later concluded that the cause was a burst of solar activity.
But the Pentagon reports that two satellites colliding in space could spread out and send thousands of tiny pieces of shrapnel throughout orbit drifting gradually to hit other satellites and cause problems that could be felt for years afterward. And in this case, not only cable television stations would be affected. GPS systems, phone lines, certain internet providers, weather prediction models, and perhaps even military satellites would be disrupted by the catastrophe. If this were the case, then the process wouldn't be the end of the world, but it might be the end of communication as we know it. At least for a time.
And there's no sign of slowing down in the orbital detritus field. As the metallic and glass fragments whiz through the air at speeds of anywhere from only a few to up to 60 miles per hour, the possibility of collision has made defense on any one satellite near impossible to reliably implement. And many of the fragments are small, consisting of only a few ounces of material while others are quite large and can be tracked from the ground.
The debris field in space is an emerging problem, but with more satellites in space, methods of controlling them will be more difficult. A single passing asteroid could in theory knock a satellite out of its trajectory and toward another causing a cascade effect that disrupts communication. Stray solar flares can damage guidance chips as they did in 2007. And of course there's also the possibility of purposeful sabotage, which could affect satellites either through military sabotage or computer hacking. With so much at stake, the field of debris hovering above the Earth has the Pentagon -perhaps understandably- concerned. Meanwhile more satellites go up since the report was released.