Just over two years ago, two satellites collided destroying the functioning Iridium 33 telecommunications satellite. Iridium 33 was quickly replaced using an orbiting spare. Soon after the collision, many indulged in recreating the dynamics of the collision with impressive graphics and animations. Although these recreations were impressive, they will most likely do nothing to prevent the next collision.
For two months after the collision, I pored through many reputable web sites, trying to find any information that could be used for my research paper on the collision and investigating the future of international satellite tracking. I found that there were few sites that reported on the event in-depth. Many reiterated the fact that "space is crowded" without elaborating on what such a statement really meant.
A small minority of these web sites did mention that another collision was possible, based on the fact that one had already happened. Others mentioned the now defunct "Big Sky" theory. The radio and TV media did devote some time to the event, however, based on my own experience, this coverage was minimal. This small amount of coverage worried me. I became worried that the media was not informing the population of the dangers of satellite collisions and how imminent they had suddenly become. I became worried that those who were experienced in satellite communications and satellite tracking were not given adequate time to explain what was going on, thereby creating a vacuum in which ignorance and quasi-scientific statements could possibly take the place of intelligent discussion.
Ironically, the collision occurred during the second month of the International Year of Astronomy (IYA), when CASTOR was continuing its extensive private optical satellite survey. Since the day of the collision, I have believed that astronomy can be used to train new satellite trackers and to raise awareness of the major problem of effective "satellite traffic control".
The satellite collision was the final event required to make satellite tracking a truly international concern. Before the collision, many countries most likely launched satellites without thinking about how their launches would affect other satellites that occupy the same orbit space. Unfortunately, the "Big Sky" theory (which was based on very little actual scientific observation) prevailed.
One fact that I have discovered over my career is that very few people in the entire world truly understand the very complex subject of satellite tracking. In many cases, it is easy to lead a research project as an administrator without truly knowing anything about astronomy and/or space science. We cannot do this anymore because the stakes are (and always have been) much too high to take chances. The collision has shown that if we are to become serious about protecting our satellite population, we must have leaders who are truly experienced in the science of satellite tracking. Not only would decisions be based on true experience, which is always a good idea, but new satellite tracking professionals would be hired not because they satisfy a "checklist" prepared by non-scientists, but because they know what they are talking about and know how to think about the way ahead for this subject.
In my opinion, the hiring practices of the world's satellite and tracking industries will need to be radically changed in order for the world to avoid another satellite collision. In this day and age, nationality should not be a significant deal-breaker, especially if you are a citizen of a NATO country. Many of the major American space industries do not hire anyone outside of the United States. You can see this in writing on their web sites. In my opinion, this is a significant oversight (some might say discriminatory) and this practice could seriously damage their competitiveness in space in the near future.
In his 2011 State of the Union Address, President Barack Obama specifically referred to a "Sputnik Moment", warning that if science education in the U.S. is not improved, another nation (such as India or China) could possibly accomplish a significant scientific feat that could leave the U.S. behind, much like the Soviet Sputnik satellite launch did in 1957. The problem with this thinking is that science education cannot produce results in a few months. Such an endeavour requires many years of encouragement and nurturing that might have to last much longer than a 4-year political mandate would allow. We might even require a "separation of science and state" in order for science to truly flourish and innovate independently of political partisanship.
What President Obama might not have known is that the U.S. already had two "Sputnik Moments" within the last several years. The first came in January 2007, when the Chinese destroyed one of their malfunctioning weather satellites using a ground-based missile launch. Not only did the Chinese demonstrate that they could accomplish such a difficult feat, they also greatly contributed to the already large amount of debris orbiting the Earth at the time. Up to 5000 new pieces of debris were created by the intentional destruction of Fengyun 1C. Although the U.S. followed suit a year later by destroying its own malfunctioning classified satellite, that was all that was done. The "Big Sky" theory was not shaken.
The second "Sputnik Moment" occurred on February 10, 2009 when the two intact payloads collided. This event was different because it was not an accomplishment by another nation, but a catastrophe due to the failure of worldwide space surveillance networks and space analysts. This failure was not any single nation's fault, but the result of an accumulating satellite population in the Low Earth Orbit (LEO) realm. Some might have indulged in hindsight, saying that the world should have developed satellite collision mitigation plans in the form of more accurate tracking and/or cleanup initiatives much earlier. However, hindsight does not reverse the damage or put this genie back in the bottle.
More than two years after the collision, has anything changed? Has the world learned from the event enough such that it can prevent the next collision? Have more scientists who specialize in the subject been hired to lend their expertise to the problem? Has science education been improved in North America? Have any new satellite cleanup initiatives been adequately financed by governments? Based on what I have seen and experienced, the answers to all of these questions are "no". Therefore, we will most likely wait until the next collision occurs.
In order to improve science education in the U.S., government and administrators might have to do something they don't want to do. True science education is very hard work, requiring highly experienced scientists with actual practical experience in their fields who can articulate the information such that the new generation can learn from real examples. President Obama did not mention this fact in his address that night. Not only would throwing money at the problem not work, the U.S. might not have the money to try at the present time.
For these reasons, the U.S. will have to begin hiring outside of its borders or risk losing their competitiveness in science before their children can be trained properly. Hiring new satellite tracking professionals is a great start, since mitigating satellite collision is the most pressing problem to solve. Astronomy instructors are perfect to teach children the basics of science, the scientific method and critical thinking, since the laboratory (the heavens) is virtually free to explore. As a bonus, satellites and their orbits can also be studied at the same time.
In my opinion, the next satellite collision is inevitable because no one nation currently has the infrastructure to detect and track all of the satellites orbiting the Earth, there is still no effective international agreement on satellite responsibility and liability and there is still no satellite cleanup plan of consequence that would significantly reduce the overwhelming number of satellites. Some might say that the conditions that caused the first collision will still be around to precipitate the next one.
Can we prevent future satellite collisions? The only way to find out is to seriously try to minimize the possibility of collision using every method: existing and imagined. This will definitely require a massive international effort. We really have no choice now. The only alternative is to wait for the next collision...
Waiting for the Next Collision... Was Last Modified On February 21, 2011