Saturday, March 31, 2007

Danger Will Robinson: can space junk make aeroplane travel unsafe?

Pilots on a commercial flight from Chile saw flaming objects falling past their plane as it headed into New Zealand earlier this week. Australian media got a bit excited about this and postulated that the objects were part of a Russian spacecraft. Others suggested that they were meteoroids.

ABC Radio in NSW called me for comment (which was nice - they wanted me as a space debris expert, not an archaeologist!). Their spin was: should people be concerned? Is it becoming unsafe to be an aeroplane passenger?

I argued not - that the likelihood of actually being hit by space junk re-entering the atmosphere was negligible. Not, however, zero: people and property have been struck before. But mostly debris burns up on re-entry, and the space tracking boffins know when something big is on the way.

In the back of my head were a few alarm bells. I'd hate to cause a panic among frequent flyers by ill-chosen words! And once again I was tired as, having thrown all my energy into meeting a deadline just half an hour before the interview (and then being enticed into the bar by a few students - it was my choice to have a drink though!). My brain was practically in orbit itself.

I did use the opportunity to make a valuable point though. Instead of worrying that space junk would hit their plane, people should be worried about space junk compromising satellite services - television, telephone, GPS and navigation, weather forecasting, and - ATMs. That's right, ATMs rely on satellite data to function. I'm only aware of this because I hang out with space people, and it should be more widely known. Can you imagine what would happen if we lost access to satellites?

As an aside, I just want to say how much I loathe the word "airplane". There is no beauty in it.


  1. As an aside, I just want to say how much I loathe the word "airplane". There is no beauty in it.

    I agree! Much prefer "aeroplane". Luckily -- as I write about them a lot -- in the period I'm researching it was the more common term, overall.

  2. Your research sounds very relevant for Dr Heather Burke's (aka Dr Giggi Ignom) and my project, "The archaeology of World War II in Adelaide". We're looking at air raid shelters, and of course, the changing nature of fear when the sky becomes a the source of danger .... this is also part of Sputnik's social significance.

  3. If I can help in any way, please let me know. I don't know much about the Australian case specifically, but people here keenly followed British debates about bombing, if the holdings of the State Library of Victoria are anything to go by! The archaeology of air raid shelters sounds interesting (I've heard there was a WWII-period shelter under Spencer St Station here in Melbourne); I'm always surprised at the degree to which the bomber was feared even here. As to Sputnik et al, I agree ... the Cold War analogues are something I'd like to get into one day myself!