Satellites and Debris: Star-Crossed Lovers


Each week, Death by Science sends out an all-points bulletin for the latest science and technology news, tracks it down, and beats a confession out of it. This week, we look up to the stars, readjust our focus, and look closer at satellites. They are the reason you are able to read this right now on your computer or phone, but what if they ceased to work? It’s more possible than you think.

It’s May 19, 1998. You slide off the cellophane packaging from Fastball’s All the Pain Money Can Buy and put the CD in your Discman. No need to hit next, “The Way” is the first track and once that Austin-based power pop enters your ears, you are in heaven. The season finale of Dawson’s Creek is on, but the sound is off. You watch Dawson and Joey finally kiss, but something is wrong.

Your buddy Dave was supposed to page you when it was time to pick him up from Little Caesar’s. That was over an hour ago and it never takes more than 15 minutes for them to make a large pepperoni. You check your beeper. Nothing.

“Maybe he got sucked through one of those portals with Richard Dean Anderson and wound up in a futuristic Egyptian alternate universe,” you think. (Stargate SG-1 just premiered.)

Half an hour and still nothing. No page from Dave and no pizza pizza. Finally there’s a knock at the door. Dave is outside, aggravated with cold pizza in hand.

“I paged you, dude! Check your beeper!” Dave is upset. “Where were you? You’ll never be my phone-a-friend if Regis asks!”

You are confused. Not just because Who Wants to be a Millionaire won’t debut in America for another year, but also because you never got a page. Unbeknownst to you, 22,300 miles directly above Kansas, the protective wax covering a solder in the Galaxy IV satellite’s control processor developed a hole.

What resulted was a complete blackout of pager service for about 90% of the World’s beeper users (you and 45 million drug dealers and doctors). In addition, the majority of Chevron’s gas pump credit card readers stopped working as well as CBS and NPR’s broadcast feeds.

But this was 1998. The worst that happened was your pizza got cold. Reports from this massive-scale communications failure describe people happy to stay close to phones and walk inside gas stations to give their credit cards to real life people in order to pay for their full tank (which cost 35 cents at the time).

A Los Angeles Times piece happily declared, “No twee-tweet from the little box on the husband’s waistband. No twee-tweet from the gizmo on the teenager’s wrist. No twee-tweet from anybody’s purse or backpack or briefcase.”

That jazz may have played in ’98, but nowadays those twee-tweets are a little more important.

Google Maps directions to Pinkberry important.

Live-tweeting Franklin and Bash important.

Seamless Fucking Web important.

The majority of communications data was eventually rerouted through other satellites and another geosynchronous orbiter took Galaxy IV’s place. Still, the malfunction caused massive telecommunications problems down here on Earth for over a day. We spoke with Diana Ball of Boeing (the aerospace corporation that owns Hughes Space and Communications Company, which was responsible for building and launching Galaxy IV), and she said that was the only major satellite failure in the company’s history.

Satellites have been launched into orbit for over half a century and they have an extremely reliable success rate. Normally, a satellite running out of fuel is the only problem that occurs. This happens regularly (about every 15 years), and they plan for it. The last bit of fuel is used to push the satellite out of the way into a higher orbit, and a replacement satellite is launched to take over its old geosynchronous position.

Galaxy IV was undone by a minuscule little hole in 1998 and the world — full of alternative rock and Dawson’s Creek — wasn’t just a different place back then; space has changed immensely as well.

It’s full of garbage now.

A lot of this is thanks to China. In 2007, the Chinese wanted to test an aerospace defense missile, so they blew up the Fengyun-1C weather satellite.

They pulled a Moonraker on themselves.

[NOTE: Moonraker, which is in my humble opinion the worst Bond film, is essentially unrecognizable from the Ian Fleming novel on which it is based. In the book, Hugo Drax constructs a nuclear warhead that is aimed at London, not an orbiting evil space lair that would later be lampooned in Austin Powers: The Spy Who Shagged Me. The reason for this discrepancy is the fact that when Moonraker was written in 1955, the space race hadn’t yet begun and Fleming could not have even imagined the pace at which it would proceed. That, and the producers were trying to piggyback on the success of Star Wars which was released two years prior to the movie adaptation of Moonraker. In addition, both the film and novel feature the most underrated Bond Girl of the entire series: Dr. Holly Goodhead.]

Nicholas L. Johnson, the chief scientist of NASA’s Orbital Debris Program Office, told us that, “China did not warn any nation prior to their anti-satellite test in January 2007.”

It is estimated that more than 300,000 pieces of debris larger than 1 cm. are orbiting the Earth, and the U.S. reportedly keeps tabs on about 22,000 of those chunks.

The Orbital Debris Program Office, which consists of 5 civil servants and about 15 contractors and grantees, is largely responsible as the main watchdog for all this garbage. The European Space Agency also chips in, and when China had a one-man aerospace arms race, it caused a major headache for those offices.

“That event did create the most significant debris cloud in history; to date, more than 3,000 large debris (larger than a few inches) have been cataloged,” Mr. Johnson said. “The debris poses a threat to every operational spacecraft in low Earth orbit. Several spacecraft have had to conduct collision avoidance maneuvers as a result of these debris.”

The International Space Station knows firsthand about China’s handiwork. In early April, three members of the ISS crew had to take cover in an escape pod when bits of Chinese garbage flew dangerously close.

If a pin-sized crater in some wax can take out almost all of the world’s pagers, imagine what a hacky sack-sized chunk of Chinese satellite could do to the delicate network of communications we rely on everyday?

The problem of space debris will only get worse. Different bits of junk hit each other and splinter off, multiplying into a cloud of interstellar garbage that poses an exponentially growing threat to our satellites and orbital crafts.

The Orbital Debris Program Office was not affected by the recent NASA budget cuts and doesn’t appear to be threatened any time soon. New technologies, like the Air Force’s Space Based Space Surveillance satellite, improve our understanding of where threatening debris is coming from. Despite all this, an orbital garbage cloud is a problem that will only get bigger.

“To date there are no formal plans for orbital debris removal on a large scale. Such an effort would have to be of an international nature to be effective,” Nicholas L. Johnson said.

The last time a multinational aerospace effort was successful was when we launched and inhabited the International Space Station.

That has worked out great, at least when we aren’t hiding from Chinese space garbage flying at us at 4.8 miles per second.