Satellites have ushered in a new era, along with all the technology they enable in one way or another. The first one was a real big deal, and had a name that stuck in a lot of people’s minds long after it had fallen to the Earth to burn up in the atmosphere. Sputnik was launched in 1957, and hung out in low orbit for nearly three months.
The batteries in that first satellite lasted about three weeks, transmitting radio pulses on four different channels so esteemed scientists and amateur radio enthusiasts could go all gaga over the event. After that, it continued to orbit silently until our planet’s gravity got the best of it. Sputnik traveled over forty million miles, orbited the Earth more than fourteen hundred times, and ended dramatically as a fireball when it tried to return to Earth.
Maybe no one wondered if that had any effect on the atmosphere, or the environment it protects, back in the late fifties. Everyone was so excited about the amazing advances represented by this famous flight, the last thing on anyone’s mind was what kind of environmental consequences those advances may also bring. Also, people back then were not really all that concerned about the impact humans were having on the planet. It just wasn’t a popular issue.
To be fair, Sputnik probably didn’t do a whole lot of damage to the atmosphere by burning up in it. Even if metal and plastic expel some pretty noxious gases when they catch on fire, those flames burned far from any people. By the time any of them reached anyone’s nose, the fumes had surely dissipated to the point where they couldn’t smell a thing.
Also, it was just one satellite. This is a pretty big planet, from the perspective of a tiny little human; distributing the gases expelled by a single fireball of melting metal throughout this giant atmosphere sounds relatively harmless. All the things scientists were able to learn because of that monumental event seem pretty worthwhile, even in retrospect.
Let’s fast forward now, and look at satellites today.
Since Sputnik, about eight thousand satellites have been launched into space. Some folks says it’s a little more than that, others say a little less…and a few people tag the estimate with ‘that we know about’. Instead of going down the rabbit hole implied by those four little words, and spending the rest of this post talking about stealth satellites and what they might be doing, let’s discuss those satellites we know about.
Only around a thousand of them are active, sending signals that touch most of our lives in one way or another. Most of them are owned by private companies these days, but governments still put plenty of satellites up for their exclusive use…and those are just the ones we know about.
So, what about the other seven thousand?
When you have trouble in your travels, here on Earth, you can almost always call someone to come fix your car or give you a ride. Up there in space, things are a little different. Like anything, a satellite only lasts so long. In the best case scenario, the people launching them can estimate accurately how much time will pass before it breaks down or runs out of fuel. When the countdown gets close, they use the remaining fuel to propel the satellite deeper into space or into the atmosphere.
So it can burn up, like Sputnik did.
Before we get into these two options, let’s remember these are the choices presented in a best case scenario. When everything totally goes as planned, they are the two ways satellites are usually retired. Every once in a while they land one, but not very often. Most of them are sent deeper into space, or slowed down so they fall from their orbit and burn up in the atmosphere.
Slowing them down takes more fuel than sending them deeper into space, so you can guess which option is the most popular. As a result, more and more useless hunks of metal and plastic get shipped into space every year. They don’t go very far, either. Instead they remain in Earth’s orbit, a couple hundred miles out from the most distant active satellites.
You know, so they don’t get in the way.
What they would get in the way of is spacecraft travel, to or from our planet. There’s nothing like a ring of trash to dissuade highly intelligent life from visiting us or sharing their technology, and future space explorers from Earth will have to dodge junk from our time that is forever hurtling through space at over ten thousand miles per hour. If we keep this up, we may end up with rings around our planet that are beautiful from very far away. Once you get up close, though…the beauty is sure to fade as the reality of the situation sinks in.
The really smart aliens would probably turn around at the realization, and never get within twenty thousand miles of Earth. If they did keep going, they would soon realize we keep most of our trash right here on the planet. Most of our landfills probably can’t be seen from space, but the floating islands of garbage in the ocean might be visible as they get close. And if they picked the right part of the ocean, they might just find The Spaceship Graveyard!
That’s right, there is a place here on Earth that has been designated as the best spot to drop space junk. Remember, that’s the other option in our best case scenario; either they propel it deeper into space, or they send it back to Earth. Not all the stuff they send up there is small enough to burn up in the atmosphere, so they guide it to land in a remote spot in the South Pacific Ocean.
I discovered a NASA web page while looking into this, titled ‘Where do old satellites go when they die?’ It looks like it was written for kids, or for adults with grade school level reading and comprehension. If I haven’t managed to get a laugh out of you with this post, you might go check it out for yourself; I don’t think they wrote it that way deliberately, but the page is definitely comical in its own twisted way. I’ll link that up for you, when we’re getting near the end.
Either the government thinks we’re all pretty stupid, or they are so accustomed to spinning issues that even their NASA posts come off sounding a little dizzy. The page treats both of the methods they use to get rid of satellites during a best case scenario like they are some kind of permanent and magical solution. It says the low orbit satellites are simple to take care of; they just send them back to Earth, to burn up in the atmosphere. At this point, I have to quote what it says next to really drive my point home.
‘Ta-da! No more satellite!’
Yeah, that’s a quote from NASA. The page goes on to say The Spacecraft Graveyard is about as far from civilization as you can get, like that should put all our concerns about environmental impact to rest. I mean, what part of dropping burning metal and plastic into the ocean at thousands of miles per hour sounds like a good idea? Also, aren’t all the oceans connected? It’s hard to believe the folks concerned about the other trash floating in the ocean don’t care about flaming bits of space debris falling from the sky, even if no human eyes are there to see it. Perhaps they don’t care; but I’ll bet the marine life in the area does.
Before we leave NASA alone, let’s recap what their view on sending defunct satellites deeper into space is. The page asks a question, at some point, only to answer it with the finality and certainty of a little kid announcing that two plus two equals five. I’ll paraphrase the question, but I have to quote the page again to show you how ridiculous the answer truly is. The question asks if this is the final end for these satellites, when they get sent further into space. And the answer is…
‘As far as you or I are concerned it is!’
How dare you, NASA. Please don’t assume my curiosity ends where your sense of responsibility does. I am more likely to get behind the next idea put forth in the post, even if it’s the one time the writer seems to actually be trying to be funny. It says someday we may need to find a way to clean up all that trash floating in the planet’s orbit. That sounds like a great idea…everything but the ‘someday’ part.
Of course, then we have to figure out what to do with all that scrap. It’s bad enough that it’s cluttering up space, but at least there’s a lot of room for it out there. If they bring it back to Earth, all they’re going to do is dump it in the ocean like the rest.
Don’t forget, these are best case scenario solutions. When a satellite breaks down or runs out of fuel unexpectedly, the only thing they do about it is nothing at all. The defunct technology continues to orbit the planet, along with all the others, in a ring of trash that continues to grow with each passing year.
We have no way of knowing what the air smelled like before nuclear bombs started going off, and space junk began to regularly burn up in the atmosphere. The fish in The Spaceship Graveyard are probably several generations past knowing what swimming in clean water is like, too. We might consider that some of the toxic gases expelled by satellites that become fireballs as they hurtle toward the ocean never make it into our lower atmosphere; but that just means they stay in our upper atmosphere, or drift off into space. No matter how we look at it, we’re polluting a part of the solar system with no way to know what longterm effects we’re causing.
When I decided to link up the NASA page I referred to, so you could have a look and a laugh of your own, my editor had to point out something that should have been obvious. Apparently the pictures on the page looked like they belonged in a children’s book for good reason, and the page I had landed on sounded like it was written for kids because it was written for kids.
That’s right, I’m an idiot. I’m pretty sure I’ve been clear about that from the beginning, but the occasional reminder doesn’t hurt. I got all steamed up about the crap they were peddling when I thought it was for everyone; and no matter what my mistake may say about me, the things NASA is telling kids on their website says way more about them.
I don’t send my trash into space, or burn metal and plastic only to act like I made it magically disappear. Generally I do an okay job of cleaning up after myself, and I never throw my defunct technology directly into the ocean. Maybe I can’t tell a website meant for adults from one designed for kids; but I also don’t pretend the things I do are without consequence, both deliberate and unintentional.
Rather than go back and edit what I had already written, I thought it would be fun to admit my misstep. Now you can have a laugh at my expense before you check out the website. Then you can have a laugh at NASA, for telling the next generation it’s fine to drop flaming space debris in the ocean or send it out into space like it’s some kind of endless landfill.
Click here to see what NASA is telling your kids!
I hope you loved the post, and that you come back for the next one. Satellites aren’t the only thing we’re sending into space, and at least they have some reason for being out there. If aliens find them, they will probably have no problem figuring out what they are there for.
When they come upon a coffin, though…well, I can’t imagine that being anything but unpleasantly surprising and perhaps a little disturbing. They are much less likely to say, “Hey, that’s Spock!” than they are to wonder why we are using space as a graveyard.
We’ll talk about that next week, in a post called…
They’re launching dead celebrities into space!
Thanks for reading!
All the best,