SPACE CRASH TAKES DOWN THE NET

Multiple satellite pile-up causes global communications outage

The solar flare that disabled an aging spy satellite was the root cause of the problem. With its auto-stabilizing thrusters out of action, the ‘bird’ went spinning out of control, struck a large piece of space debris, and created a ripple effect among GPS, TV and telecoms satellites.

Most of them were smashed beyond repair, some just had their orbits completely changed. But the sudden, global quiet that came over the skies was felt more keenly on the ground, where financial transactions and industrial control systems rely on the timing signals and commlinks from satellites to keep things running smoothly.

Like a silent tsunami, hurtling at tens of kilometres per second, the dreaded Kessler Syndrome – where debris from one collision starts a chain reaction of impacts – blossomed outward from low orbit to the distant reaches of the geostationary satellites.

The resulting carnage was much like a highway pile-up, with wrecks strewn all over the place. Only they can’t be hauled off to the body shop for repair.

There’s no Space Shuttle to do the hauling these days either.

At a price of hundreds of millions of dollars per unit, the cost of this accident is truly astronomical. More worrying for some, the cost and mission status of military satellites are closely guarded secrets. Are there cracks in the shield?

But what caused this traffic collision to turn into a full-blown disaster? The recent rash of micro-satellites and build-up of rocket debris simply created a tipping point – any collision was bound to cause more impacts. Which is why NASA should have developed their ‘sat-nuking’ laser when they had the chance.

Warning: Hazardous thinking at work

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