Science

Why Garbage Falling From Space Is A Good Thing

OK, so you don't need to worry much about the NASA research satellite that will be falling back to Earth soon. The chances of anyone getting clocked are, after all, just 1-in-3,200.

But the event is still worth a moment of your consideration. The very concept of human constructed artifacts falling from the heavens is, historically speaking, so new and radical that you don't want to let the event to pass with just a shrug.

The physics of the problem is simple. As Phil Plait puts it over at Bad Astronomy (with a nice figure to boot):

"The satellite was decommissioned in 2005 and they used the remaining fuel to lower the orbit. It's been slowly getting lower since then, but recently reached the part of our air where it slows and drops dramatically."

(There is also a nice graphic of the current orbit with some details of the satellite that goes along with Dan Vergano's story.)

For most of our history seeing anything drop from the skies was cause for serious concern including, perhaps, some good old-fashioned panic and Emperor toppling. Now we are deep into the first stage of becoming a space-faring race. Now it's our garbage which drops from the skies to a collective cultural "ho-hum".

But culture can move backwards as well as forwards. The collective project of global high tech culture faces vast challenges. We should never take it for granted and never forget that there is no guarantee space exploration or exploitation remain a given. It is possible that oneday kids will hear stories about an age when it was our "chariots" that traced arcs across the night sky. We still need to be reminded of what we have achieved, even if it takes garbage to do it.


You can keep up with more of what Adam Frank is thinking on Facebook and Twitter.

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