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Money Up a Rat Hole: The “Space Fence” Boondoggle

Written by Gary North on May 9, 2014

Gravity was a popular movie. It was lots of fun, except for one thing: it’s going to happen. Statistically, it’s going to happen.

The governments of the world have known this for over 35 years.

Maybe you have heard of the tragedy of the commons. It’s where a valuable asset is not owned. There is no incentive to conserve it. There is great incentive to use it, since it’s free. The result is pollution.

Outer space is free. The various gravity belts that serve as satellite real estate are free.

These orbits are gigantic space dumps. Dead satellites don’t get sent to the vast beyond. They stay there, at 17,000 miles an hour, waiting to hit another satellite. When one of them does . . . boom. Then there are lots more pieces of junk.

In atomic bombs, it’s called a chain reaction. In space, it’s called the Kessler effect.

The Kessler effect is named after NASA scientist Donald J. Kessler, who wrote about it in 1978. It is a scenario in which the density of objects in low earth orbit gets  larger over time, so that that a collision between objects causes a cascade. Each collision produces more space debris, which in turn increases the likelihood of further collisions.

This is a domino effect. Collisions between objects of sizable mass produce thousands of pieces of debris. This shrapnel can then hit other objects. Remember: it’s 17,000 miles an hour. A small piece of debris at this speed is like a tiny canon ball. The canon ball produces more canon balls.

Every satellite, space probe, and manned mission has the potential of becoming space debris. A cascading Kessler effect becomes statistically more likely as satellites in orbit increase in number, and old satellites become inoperative.

Telecommunications rely on satellite transmissions. The Internet relies on satellite transmissions. That’s why it’s called “the cloud.”

One day, without warning: boom. Boom boom.  Boom boom boom.  All silent in outer space.

As George Clooney said in the movie: “Half of North America just lost their Facebook.”

It might be all of North America . . . and everywhere else.

What is the federal government’s solution? A gigantic boondoggle called the “Space Fence.” It isn’t a fence. It’s a $6 billion radar system that will monitor a tiny fraction of the space junk.

One piece of junk, no larger than your thumb, can produce the Kessler effect. At 17,000 miles an hour, the little canon ball has tremendous force. But the “Space Fence” cannot monitor this size canon ball.

(For the rest of my article, click the link.)


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10 thoughts on “Money Up a Rat Hole: The “Space Fence” Boondoggle

  1. Guest 1 says:

    The movie "Gravity" might have been "fun" but it was poor science. The only way that something could get you "ninety minutes" later in orbit was if the plane of the orbit was a right angles AND both of your orbital periods were 180 minutes. Ninety minutes is the normal "low earth orbit", which means that crew who were affected in "Gravity" were sitting still while the garbage spun past them, which is non-sense.

    We might have to clean up certain orbital spaces in Earth. There may be ways to vaporize objects in space or to impose drag upon them to pull them out of orbit.

    The "space fence"? Sounds like a boondoggle to me…. One wonders if the Space Fence is a way to improve the Nation's ABM system? Improving our Ballistic Missile Defense IS a Constitutional and moral thing to do. Of course let's not let the Progressives hear about the potential ABM applications of the Space Fence… they might not want to do it because they like terrorism because they rely a LOT on coercion.

  2. ignatius says:

    The debris, while traveling at 17,000 miles per hour, doesn't hit objects at that speed. Anything in that orbit will be traveling at pretty much the same 17,000 miles per hour. It's not like a space station is standing still and here comes some junk towards it at 17,000 mph. It might be traveling a little faster than the space station, but not a lot faster.

  3. "A small piece of debris at this speed is like a tiny canon ball. The canon ball produces more canon balls."

    I didn't know debris could have specific sets of religious beliefs. How cool!

  4. But is it a Protestant canon ball, or are there Apocryphal canon balls too?

  5. The same 17000mph? A look at the LEO debris 'cloud' should make it clear that everything in orbit isn't on a 2D track around the globe. Orbit direction is determined by launch latitude (earth position) and launch azimuth. And efficient ascent to orbit governs the fairly narrow range of launch azimuth. Then there are satellites (+rocket bodies +platforms) that are intentionally launched to a polar orbit. Many satellites are maneuvered to a different-than-launched orbit. Then there are exciting collision opportunities afforded by the decaying elliptical orbits of semi-synchronous objects.

  6. Live Free says:

    With due respect to Dr. North, this is NOT the "domino effect." It's still only the Kessler effect. Plus, it's also NOT a chain reaction as used in nuclear physics and criticality. We are using colloquialisms and popular phrases to describe something that needs to be more rigidly defined, that is, if you want to talk about those things as adults. Furthermore, I'd like to steer the discussion away from these aspects of the posting. What we are talking about here is (I think) a bloated government program to spend billions of my dollars on roughly the equivalent of surveillance cameras that I see on street corners. These cameras watch the crime take place and then try to figure out who did it. The radar tracking discussed in this article will do the same thing for space junk, and should be prevented from being implemented for the same reasons! It's a bad idea, and is based on a flawed notion of what is going on up there.

    If the people who are going to approve this project think there are some dominos up there, or if they believe that the movie "Space" was real science, then they need to be fired and replaced with someone who understands what is at risk here.

    In my opinion, this effort should be paid for by those who stand to gain from it. That would be, in part, the companies who are putting that stuff up there in the first place, as well as those who use satellite services. If that means that my satellite TV bill will go up, that is fine. If that means that my Facebook won't be free any more, that is fine too. Will my cell phone bill go up? How about pictures from Google Earth becoming pay-per-view? All OK.

    The alternative, that is increasing the tax burden for something that is clearly NOT the role of government, becomes just another thing that this government is doing to expand its involvement in things for which it has no authority by Constitution.

  7. Would depend on the direction of all objects and they are NOT all traveling in the same direction. The vacuum of space does not counteract kinetic energy, just resistance with no atmosphere. So kinetic energy(velocity) at impact would vary at every different event. None of it would matter though because any collisions would be fatal to the craft and likely send it back to earth at some point in time via gravity?

    We are far too dependent on all forms of technology and we will pay a serious price for this one day ? Likely in the not too distant future and certainly in our life times IMO. Another issue for me is why are we so concerned with trying to get out into space if we cannot even run this planet reasonably and harmoniously? Look at all the wars and atrocious acts right here? Seems we should focus on first things first to me? I am completely convinced NASA and the secret space agencies beyond NASA are just money pits and the money is used to create more control mechanisms? It is all unaccounted for so you and I have no idea what is really going on or how the trillions are spent . And over the years it is trillions , not billions. There are many such black projects off the books that congress knows nothing about It is all hidden behind closed doors.

    Do you trust any of it ? I don't . Simply because it is all too secret and that means something is being hidden behind the vail of national security again? and if you believe that ? Well you are already doomed.

  8. Fred Campbell says:

    Please stay with economic analysis.

    Your referenced article is hyperbole. Not about the money spent on the “Space Fence” but about orbital physics.

    First, you confuse Low earth Orbit (LEO) debris with space communications systems (medium to high earth orbits). Generally thousands of miles apart.

    Second, “space” is vast. So vast that collisions can only be defined in events per decade (or, more realistically, “events per century”).

    Third, LEO debris, in general, deorbits in a fairly short time (months to decades). There is nothing “eternal” about LEO debris.

    Forth, you hyperventilate about the thousands of pieces of debris that result from collisions between space junk. An under-appreciated fact is that most collision debris will deorbit promptly. For an object to remain in orbit, it’s velocity vector must fit a very narrow set of parameters (vector and velocity). Only a small percentage of the debris from a collision will fall within this envelope.

    You are right on your main point, namely that this “Space Fence” is an expensive boondoggle. The fact is that it already exists. NORAD has been operating this system for many decades. It tracks all space debris down to a “few inches” (the limit capability is, I believe, classified).

    Keep up the good work, but get your scientific facts straight.

  9. It also depends upon what the waste material is. When two pieces of debris collide the result is more like exploding pool balls. You are right that very little debris created will remain at that approximate orbit. The mass attraction will pull the objects moving slower to Earth and burn up. The faster bits will achieve a larger radius orbit.

  10. David B says:

    I could hardly endure that movie the science was so bad. When you have a strike in space the junk doesn't all clump together and blast through you like a laser beam. It goes in every direction. No way it could go all the way around earth and then just happen to hit you again either.

    Space is big people, the orbits of these satellites encompass more area than even the entire surface of the Earth. The few satellites we have up there don't fill up much of that space.

    I do think it's a good idea to plan for end of service life for satellites, though. We shouldn't just be putting them all up there forever. There should be a mechanism built it to de-orbit junk that is at end of life. Eventually we will have a collision up there. It won't be anything like what is shown in Gravity though. That movie is a perfect example of why the public misunderstands so much about the way things work.