Monthly Archives: November 2022

How Come Space is Full of Human Junk?

Getting rid of the deadly debris orbiting the Earth should become a priority for firms trying to do business there. If only they knew exactly where it is. The space race comes with a growing litter problem: U.S. officials expect the number of satellites to increase almost tenfold to 58,000 by 2030, many of them with lifespans not much longer than five years.

Space trash could potentially trigger devastating chain reactions, posing a significant threat to a space economy that is forecast by Morgan Stanley to generate $1 trillion in revenues by 2040. Only three big collisions have happened to date, but close calls are increasingly common. In November 2021, denizens of the International Space Station (ISS) had to take refuge in their capsules after a Russian antisatellite missile test created a cloud of wreckage.

In September 2022, the U.S. Federal Communications Commission ruled that operators of satellites in the “low Earth orbit,” or LEO—below 1,200 miles of altitude—will, in two years’ time, be required to remove them “as soon as practicable, and no more than five years following the end of their mission.” The National Aeronautics and Space Administration, or NASA, did ask for space junk to be disposed of within 25 years, but these were voluntary guidelines. NASA said in a 2021 report that compliance has averaged under 30% over the past decade. Yet 90% compliance would be required just to slow the pace at which dead satellites, rocket bodies and loose fragments are accumulating. There may be little choice but to mount a cleanup operation. The main questions are who will do it and how the junk will be found.

With only limited interest from big aerospace companies, startups have stepped up. Months after its inception in 2018, Switzerland’s ClearSpace signed a €86.2 million ($86.3 million) contract with the European Space Agency, or ESA, to eliminate remains of a Vega rocket by 2025. ClearSpace will use a robot to get hold of the debris and burn it in the atmosphere. Then there is Tokyo-based Astroscale, which has raised $300 million in venture capital since its inception nine years ago. This September, the U.K. Space Agency awarded £4 million, equivalent to $4.6 million, to both companies to remove defunct British satellites by 2026.

The LEO revolution unleashed by Elon Musk’s SpaceX, which has launched over 3,000 of its miniaturized Starlink satellites, may suddenly turn this into a viable commercial market. Officials are getting spooked by all the extra clutter. In orbits lower than 375 miles, re-entry into the Earth naturally happens after a few years, but these will be crowded by Starlink alone. Many players will need to go higher, and set up “deorbit” plans that regulators—and sustainability-minded investors—find solid.

That still leaves satellite operators and trash-removal firms with a fundamental problem: Their information on an object, including position, shape and mass, involves a lot of guesswork. Most observations come from ground radars, which firms access through government agencies like the U.S. Space Command. But this data is often several hours old and can miss the mark by miles, so satellites and stations can’t swerve out of the way of approaching debris with full confidence. For removal missions, this will mean accommodating extra fuel and allowing for the possibility that an object is spinning faster than estimated, making it impossible to grab.

And this is for pieces larger than 10 centimeters, which according to the ESA number above 30,000 and are the only ones visible from Earth. Mathematical models suggest there are a million additional fragments measuring between one and 10 centimeters, and 100 million even smaller than that, often traveling many times faster than a bullet. Yet the ISS’s “Whipple shield” can be pierced by anything larger than one centimeter…

[A]ny company aspiring to profit from the final frontier will need to better understand the risks of the terrain. The alternative is a true tragedy of the commons that ends a promising new space age before it has really begun.

Excerpts from Jon Sindreu, The Difficult Search for Dangerous Space Junk, WSJ, Nov. 14, 2022

Geo-engineering Wars and Termination Shock

What if a country experiencing the bad effects of climate change—crop failures, perhaps, or serious flooding—were to begin, unilaterally and perhaps quietly, to try to modify the climate? Such a project, reckons DARPA, a research arm of America’s defence department, is possible. But it could trigger chaos, and not just of the meteorological sort. The agency, the overall objectives of which include preventing “strategic surprise”, has therefore recently begun to pay for research into how such an event might happen, and how to react to it.

DARPA’s assumption is that any attempt at unilateral geoengineering would use a technique called stratospheric aerosol injection (SAI). This would employ aircraft to disperse sulfuric acid, or its precursor sulfur dioxide, into the upper atmosphere, to form tiny sulfate particles that would reflect sunlight back into space. This would probably work (big volcanic eruptions, which do something similar, have a measurable effect on global temperatures). The costs, though, could be considerable—and not just directly in dollars.

A poorly designed SAI program might break down ozone, a form of oxygen that shields organisms, people included, from harmful ultraviolet radiation. Patterns of precipitation would also change, for cooler air absorbs less moisture, and these effects would undoubtedly vary from region to region. Another problem is the acid rain that would result.

Perhaps most pertinent, though, is that SAI would serve only to mask the effects of greenhouse gases rather than ending them. That brings the risk of “termination shock”, for the injected sulfate is constantly washed out of the atmosphere in rain and snow. The closure of and SAI program, particularly a long-lasting one, might thus cause a sudden heat jolt more difficult to deal with than the existing, gradual, warming.

That is one reason why Joshua Elliott, head of DARPA’s AI-assisted Climate Tipping-point Modelling (ACTM) program, says “we do not want to be caught flat-footed”. Modelling how Earth’s various climactic subsystems might react to SAI is no easy matter. Dr Elliott, however, reckons that better computer simulations would help. They might even, he says, eventually highlight “signatures” in climate data that would suggest that such geoengineering is afoot.

Nor is the risk of someone doing something stupid a fantasy. In 2019 Massimo Tavoni, a game theorist at Milan Polytechnic who is unaffiliated with DARPA organized six games played by 144 students. Participants were given a variety of ideal climate outcomes and allowed to spend toy money they were given on geoengineering projects to achieve them…Some players tried to counter efforts at cooling which they deemed excessive with attempts to warm the planet, resulting in a chaotic outcome that Dr Tavoni calls “geoengineering wars”. In the end, he says, “everybody loses.”…

DARPA is also developing “early warning” code to detect people undertaking geoengineering mischief on the sly, and testing it by running pairs of parallel simulations, one of which has been tweaked to reflect an SAI program being under way…SAI could even, conceivably, be undertaken by “self-authorizing” billionaires.

Areas which suffer most from rising temperatures would have greater incentives to take the plunge…including Algeria, Australia, Bangladesh, Egypt, India, Indonesia, Libya, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia and Thailand.

Excerpts from America’s defense department is looking for rogue geoengineers, Economist, Nov. 5, 2022

The Act of Successful Sabotage: cables and pipelines

On October 12, 2022 Vladimir Putin, Russia’s president, gave an ominous warning. Energy infrastructure around the world was now “at risk”, he said. Mr Putin’s warning came a month after explosions tore through Nord Stream 1 and 2, a pair of gas pipelines running from Russia to Europe under the Baltic Sea. The pipes were not in use at the time. But the ruptures left plumes of methane bubbling to the surface for days…

Subsea pipelines and cables have proliferated since the first one was laid, in 1850…There are more than 530 active or planned submarine telecoms cables around the world. Spanning over 1.3m kilometers they carry 95% of the world’s internet traffic. In November 2021, cables serving underwater acoustic sensors off the coast of northern Norway—an area frequented by Russian submarines—were cut.

Western officials say that a particular source of concern is Russia’s Main Directorate of Deep-Sea Research, known by its Russian acronym GUGI. It has a variety of spy ships and specialist submarines—most notably the Belgorod, the world’s biggest submarine, commissioned in July 2022—which can work in unusually deep water. They can deploy divers, mini-submarines or underwater drones, which could be used to cut cables. 

Cable chicanery, though, is not a Russian invention. One of Britain’s first acts during the first world war was to tear up German telecoms cables laid across the Atlantic. Germany responded with attacks on Allied cables in the Pacific and Indian Oceans.

More recently, espionage has been the order of the day..I.n 2013 Edward Snowden, a contractor for the National Security Agency (NSA), America’s signals intelligence agency, revealed an Anglo-American project had tapped at least 200 fiber-optic cables around the world. Yet the seabed is not amenable to control. A paper published in 2021 noted that Estonia and other Baltic states had only a limited grasp of what was going on under the Baltic because of quirks of hydrology, scarce surveillance platforms and limited information-sharing between countries. It concluded, perhaps presciently: “It would be difficult to prevent Russian [drones] deployed in international waters from damaging critical undersea infrastructure.”…

The first step in a sabotage mission is finding the target. With big, heavy pipelines, which are typically made from concrete-lined metal sections, that is relatively easy. Older communication cables, being smaller and lighter, can shift with the currents. Newer ones are often buried, It is also increasingly possible for operators to detect tampering, through  “distributed fiber-optic sensing”, which can detect vibrations in the cable or changes in its temperature. But that will not reveal whether the problem is a geological event or an inquisitive drone—or which country might have sent it. Underwater attribution is slow and difficult.

Determined attackers, in other words, are likely to get through. The effects of a successful attack will differ. Pipelines and subsea electricity cables are few in number. If one is blown up, gas, oil or electricity cannot easily be rerouted through another. Communication cables are different. The internet was designed to allow data to flow through alternative paths if one is blocked. And at least when it comes to connections between big countries, plenty of alternatives exist. At least 18 communication cables link America and Europe…There is significant redundancy on these routes. But  “There’s no collective institution that records all the incidents that are going on, and what is behind them—we don’t have any statistics behind it.” according to  Elisabeth Braw of the American Enterprise Institute.

Excerpts from Sabotage at Sea: Underwater Infrastructure, Economist, Oct. 22, 2022