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.

Monday, March 12, 2007

Australia's space policy to 2025

Last week I attended a workshop convened by the Kokoda Foundation, a think-tank devoted to security issues, about where Australia was headed in space. As you know we're a bit behind the door when it comes to a coherent vision for our use of space, let alone anything crazy like, oh I don't know, a decent policy ..... some interesting things emerged from the discussions, summarised below:

1. Launch capability is definitely not the way to go. We can't really compete in that market.

2. Spectrum allocation is absolutely critical.

3. Australia is underrepresented on peak bodies at an international level. For example, even though we are a founding member of COPUOS, the UN Committee on the Peaceful Uses of Outer Space, no Australian rep has attended for so long that they are thinking of chucking us off.

4. People don't talk to each other enough: right hands and left hands don't know what the other is doing (civil and military being some of the hands).

My contribution was to suggest that we need to keep some hardware in orbit; future access to orbit may depend on being able to prove a historical right to be in space after the UN treaties erode. And they will erode, and it is not inconceivable that the space powers would turn around and say, well, it's clear you've never used this orbit in the past, so why should we let you into it now? (A situation not dissimilar to some Native Title debates).

Friday, March 02, 2007

Time for the latex gloves

I got the biggest shock yesterday. Finally tracked down the first issue of new magazine Monocle, published by the pseudo-desserty Tyler Brule of Wallpaper fame, to see if they had run an article about my orbital debris research.

They had.

In the article I make some rather bold claims about US military aspirations in space. Journalist Jackie Dent quotes me accurately, and what she writes is part of our discussions earlier in January when she first raised the idea of the article. I just wasn't prepared for the effect of reading it, presented so starkly in black and white. I thought, I am so dead. They're never going to let me back into the US again.

On the other hand, would US military/space analysts read a magazine with advertisements for Ferrogamo and Prada in it?