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The Problem(s) With Debris – 2009 Edition

A little over two years ago, China conducted the now notorious direct ascent ASAT shot on the Fengyun-1 satellite which was in a polar orbit.  We’ve commented extensively at the time and a year hence on the issues raised by this shot.  So where do we stand just past the second anniversary?  Well, like rabbits, the debris field is growing:

leo-asat15The NASA report said that two years after China used a ground-based missile to destroy the retired Chinese Fengyun-1C weather satellite in an 800-kilometer orbit, SSN is tracking nearly 2,800 pieces of debris measuring at least 5 centimeters in diameter. “The estimated population of debris larger than 1 centimeter is greater than 150,000,” NASA said. “The Fengyun-1C debris cloud easily constitutes the largest collection of fragments in Earth orbit.” (

What brought our attention to this latest state of affairs was a report of another satellite potentially in trouble – this time a Soviet-era plasma-a__1test platform based on a RORSAT (radar ocean-reconnaissance satellite), powered by a prototype reactor (Topaz) that used pressurized sodium-potassium as a coolant for the reactor.  The reactor was necessary to generate the high-power required by the satellite for the ocean-surveillance mission.  Placed in a polar orbit between 774 and 803 km, the Plasma-A satellite acted as a test bed not only for the functionality of the Topaz-reactor, but taking advantage of the power generated by the reactor, also tested electrostatic maneuvering engines composed of six SPT-70 Stationary Plasma Thrusters, ion orientation and stabilization engines, solar sensors, magnetic momentum compensators and multi-channel wave devices (one of the ancillary missions was to map out the Earth’s magnetosphere for a magnetic-based navigation system). (Gunter’s space page).  Specifically what appears to have happened was what NASA is calling a “fragmentation event” that occurred 4 July 2008 while the satellite was in at 800 km altitude, releasing up to 30 small pieces of debris, conjectured to be metal spheres extruded from a conjectured leak in the reactor’s coolant system.  Of note – the satellite is slated to eventually re-enter the atmosphere sometime around mid-century and is supposed to burn up well high in the upper atmosphere.  Unlike the RORSATs which separated into two parts upon termination of mission, one being the reactor body which was moved to a higher orbit, Kosmos-1818/Plasma-A remained a single object.

A couple of theories are making the round as to what caused the event — one being that the plumbing for the metal coolant became thermal stressed from its prolonged exposure on-orbit,weakened and cracked releasing the liquid metal which promptly froze.  Another, with some traction, is that the release was the result of a collision with debris.  Where the debris came from is another issue — in its present orbit there is debris from older RORSATs that have leaked or otherwise left debris behind.  In fact, the present orbit transits some of the highest debris-laden areas – including the growing debris field from the Chinese ASAT, and serves to highlight – again, the growing issue of on-orbit debris.

Orbital debris – the gift that keeps on giving…

How Big is the Internet?

Some interesting end-of-year numbers from


1.3 billion – The number of email users worldwide.
210 billion – The number of emails sent per day in 2008.
70% – The percentage of emails that are spam.
53.8 trillion – The number of spam emails sent in 2008 (assuming 70% are spam).

Internet users

1,463,632,361 – The number of Internet users worldwide (June 2008).
578,538,257 – Internet users in Asia.
384,633,765 – Internet users in Europe.
248,241,969 – Internet users in North America.  (“Hello, Senator — about the infrastructure part of the National Pork Recovery Act, I have a suggestion or two…”)
139,009,209 – Internet users in Latin America/Caribbean.
51,065,630 – Internet users in Africa.
41,939,200 – Internet users in the Middle East.
20,204,331 – Internet users in Oceania/Australia.

Internet Users


133 million– The number of blogs on the Internet (as tracked by Technorati).
900,000 – The number of new blog posts in a day.
329 million – The number of blog posts in 2008.


10 billion– Photos hosted by Facebook (October 2008). (ed: to put in perspective, if all those images were printed as 3×5 pics, they could be lined up end-to-end from the center of the Earth to the center of the Moon three times with enough left over to get back to the vicinity of the space station in low Earth orbit. – SJS) 

New Year’s Wish


Best wishes for a safe New Year’s eve and a bright, prosperous year to come…

And there’s a hand, my trusty fiere !
And gie’s a hand o’ thine !
And we’ll tak a right gude-willy waught,

For auld lang syne.
For auld lang syne, my jo,
For auld lang syne,
We’ll tak a cup o’ kindness yet,
For auld lang syne.

New National Defense Strategy Released


…And it is an interesting read, informing the potential rationale behind some recent decisions, such as the Navy stepping away from the DDG-1000:

Future Challenges Risk
An underlying assumption in our understanding of the strategic environment is that the predominant near-term challenges to the United States will come from state and non-state actors using irregular and catastrophic capabilities. Although our advanced space and cyber-space assets give us unparalleled advantages on the traditional battlefield, they also entail vulnerabilities.

China is developing technologies to disrupt our traditional advantages. Examples include development of anti-satellite capabilities and cyber warfare. Other actors, particularly non-state actors, are developing asymmetric tactics, techniques, and procedures that seek to avoid situations where our advantages come into play.

The Department will invest in hedging against the loss or disruption of our traditional advantages, not only through developing mitigation strategies, but also by developing alternative or parallel means to the same end. This diversification parallelism is distinct from acquiring overmatch capabilities (whereby we have much more than an adversary of a similar capability). It will involve pursuing multiple routes to similar effects while ensuring that such capabilities are applicable across multiple mission areas. (emphasis added – SJS) – National Defense Strategy – June 2008

Source Document here.

There’s more in the way of extracts below the fold…

Continue Reading…

No Easy Days

  • Eighty feet & 7 inches wingtip to wingtip;
  • 700 sqft of wing surface;
  • Controls linked by a conglomerate of torque-tubes, hydraulics and cables (old school fly-by wire)

and a propensity for interesting excursions in the “burble” which can manifest at the ramp:

No Easy Days

So Nose – how would you grade it?

Oh, and don’t forget the Ronco ® slice-‘n’-dice, or else:

(all imagery from the most excellent USS Coral Sea Tribute Site – pay ’em a visit)

Busted – The Photoshoppe Mullahs

Memo to the Strategic Communications folks – might want to work on that “Uniform Message” thing…

(version released to AGENCE France-Presse )

(version released to Associated Press – note the dud in the foreground)

See and Avoid

US Airspace

30 June 1956. Two airliners, a TWA Lockheed Constellation and a United Airlines DC-7 are eastbound, in uncontrolled airspace in the vicinity of the Grand Canyon. Both were flying under visual flight rules ostensibly to avoid the thunderstorms building in the area. At 1056 local, the DC-7 struck the Connie from above and behind, severing the tail and causing it to plummet to the canyon four miles below. The doomed DC-7 unable to maintain altitude, struck the top of an 800 ft cliff. All 128 people were killed.

31 August 1986. Aeromexico, Flight 498, a DC-9, was at 6,560 ft over Cerritos, CA collided with a Piper when the latter inadvertently entered the LAX terminal control area. The Piper fell into an unoccupied playground while the DC-9 crashed into a neighborhood destroying eleven homes and damaging seven others. All 67 aboard the Aeromexico, 3 aboard the Cessna and 15 on the ground were killed. Failure to “See and avoid” was cited as one of the causal factors of the case.

Those of us who have or presently are flying know how deceptively open the skies can be. When we do our preflight planning, we consult charts, Airman’s Information Manual, Notices to Airmen (NOTAM’s) and other planning aids to check the route of our flight for potential hazards. And yet there remain problems. In some areas it is congestion, mixing high density terminal arrivals and departures with general aviation using outlying airfields. Other areas it is special use airspace that is closed at times because of hazardous operations (including military training) or low level training routes (what, in an earlier age, we called “Oil Burner” routes). Regardless, while commendable progess has been made in decreasing the number of actual midair collisions, each year, on average, there are 30 midair collisions and thousands of near midair collisions internationally. Additionally, the number of unreported close calls in the United States alone may be much higher, according to the Federal Aviation Administration. New and creative means are sought or used to address this issue:

WASHINGTON, May 20, 2008 – General aviation officers and military safety officers are using an interactive Web site created and run by the Air National Guard to help eliminate midair collisions and close calls.

In 2005, a military training aircraft collided with a civilian crop duster, resulting in destruction of both aircraft and the death of the civilian pilot. Following that tragedy, the Air National Guard created the Web site portal to help make the skies safer for pilots and passengers.

Adopted for use throughout the Defense Department in 2006, the portal offers a centralized, credible Web site for civilian pilots and military safety officers. The site offers reciprocal information and education on airspace, visual identification, aircraft performance and mutual hazards to safe flight, with the ultimate goal of eliminating midair collisions and reducing close calls.

The portal features an easy-to-use graphical interface that permits aviators to locate reported midair collisions and near midair collisions on a Google-driven map, and then directly link to the FAA or National Transportation Safety Board official report on the incident.

Read the full article here.

That’s Open to use by the general flying public. The graphic above is taken from the site and shows an overlay of special use and military operating areas, low level training routes, airfields and minor airfields. We’ll add it to the blogroll and if you fly, we recommend you add it to your preflight planning. Fly safe out there folks!