Skeptophilia (skep-to-fil-i-a) (n.) - the love of logical thought, skepticism, and thinking critically. Being an exploration of the applications of skeptical thinking to the world at large, with periodic excursions into linguistics, music, politics, cryptozoology, and why people keep seeing the face of Jesus on grilled cheese sandwiches.

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

It's raining death satellites, hallelujah!

Is anyone but me worried about the satellite that's going to come crashing down at the end of this week?

The powers-that-be have known about the upcoming collision for months; it's a US UARS (Upper Atmosphere Research Satellite) that was launched in 1991.  It was decommissioned and shut down six years ago, and its orbit has been decaying ever since.  Without any intervention, the satellite will reenter the earth's atmosphere, and strike the ground on Friday, September 23, give or take six hours or so on either side.  The satellite itself weighs 6 tons, which is enough to make a helluva crater.

 But not to worry; NASA has narrowed down the impact site to being "probably somewhere on Earth."

Our response?  Being that our president is Barack "No More Mr. Nice Guy" Obama, we seem to be doing nothing more than sitting here watching it plummet toward us.

"We're doing our best to compromise with the satellite," the president said, in a press conference.  "We attempted to persuade it to fall on Warren Buffett, but this would likely put his secretary at risk, too, and there's no justification for that.  We hope to have an agreement reached with the satellite by some time next year."

In a stinging criticism of the president, Texas governor and presidential hopeful Rick Perry stated that this was an entirely inadequate response, and said that a falling death satellite could have devastating effects on the economy.  He ended on a hopeful note, however, suggesting that the danger from the satellite might well be overblown.  "We should remember," Perry stated to a cheering crowd of Republicans, "that gravity is, after all, only a theory."

Okay, maybe I'm being a little unfair, here; it's not like there's really anything they can do at this point.  If they'd gotten on the stick a little earlier, they might have been able to shoot the satellite down, which is what they did the last time this happened.  Of course, this was during the presidency of George "Git 'Er Done" Bush, whose entire foreign policy was, quote, "YEEEEEE-HAWWWW!", and who seemed to think that "Blast the crap out of it" was an appropriate response to damn near everything.  In that case, however, it actually worked, and the satellite was blown into pieces small enough to burn up in the atmosphere.  But it's too late to attempt anything like that this time, so all we can do now is sit back and wait.  As one NASA official put it, and unlike the previous quotes, I'm not making this one up, "If you're near the impact site, you'll be in for a nice fireworks show as it breaks up on descent."

Well, isn't that a lovely thought!  We might even be able to appreciate the pretty lights for several seconds before we get flattened.  And it's not like the "breaking up on descent" part makes it any better; instead of one big chunk o' metal, we'll now have a hundred slightly smaller chunks o' metal. It's not like all 26 tons of satellite are going to vaporize, Star Trek style, into a cloud of dust.

And no one, as far as I've heard, has questioned the wisdom of putting the damn things up there in the first place.  You'd think that the folks at NASA would have heard of the concept of air resistance, wherein drag with the atmosphere (thin as it is up there) eventually causes the orbits of all satellites to decay.  Apparently not, given the fact that every time we send a rocket up, we basically put another piece of space junk into high orbit.  All that stuff will, sooner or later, come crashing down.  But fear not; it probably won't be for a long while for most of them, and the Earth's a big place.  As far as this Friday's event, the chance that anyone's house will get hit by a falling satellite part is only "one in 3,200."

Nevertheless, I'm keeping my eye on the sky on Friday.  I won't have time to run if I'm in the bullseye, but at least I won't get caught unawares.

Which, now that I come to think of it, isn't all that much consolation.

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