Tag Archives: Kosmos 954 and radioactive debris

Stargazing as a Right and Colonization of Skies

Do people have a right to an unobstructed view of the heavens? For most of human history, such a question would have been considered nonsensical—but with the recent rise of satellite mega constellations, it’s now being asked again and again. Mega constellations are vast groups of spacecraft, numbering in the thousands, that could spark a multitrillion-dollar orbital industry and transform global connectivity and commerce. But the rise of mega constellations also threatens to clutter the night sky, disrupt the work of some astronomers and create space debris that harms people on Earth and in space alike. The mega constellation era began in May 2019, when Elon Musk’s firm SpaceX launched the first 60 satellites in its Starlink constellation… Today the constellation’s numbers have swelled to more than 3,000 and account for fully half of all active satellites in space.

Ramon Ryan has argued in the in the Vanderbilt Journal of Entertainment and Technology Law that the regulatory approval of these satellites by the U.S. Federal Communications Commission (FCC) may breach environmental law as part of the U.S. National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) enacted in 1970. Specifically, he argued that the natural aesthetic of the night sky and the profession of astronomy may be protected under NEPA—but that the FCC has so far sidestepped NEPA’s oversight , thanks to a “categorical exclusion” the agency was granted in 1986 (when it simply wasn’t licensing that many satellites)….  

In November 2022, the US General Accounting Office (GAO) published a report that suggest that the FCC should revisit its categorical exclusion from NEPA and consider whether it should update its procedures in light of the rise of mega constellations. “We think they need to revisit [the categorical exclusion] because the situation is so different than it was in 1986,” says Andrew Von Ah, a director at the GAO…The White House Council on Environmental Quality (CEQ) recommends that agencies “revisit things like categorical exclusions once every seven years,” Von Ah says. But the FCC “hasn’t really done that since 1986.”

According to the report’s recommendations, the FCC should review whether mega constellations affect the environment…The findings showed there were concerns in a number of areas, not just the brightness of the satellites but also the collision risk they pose in space and the possible creation of space junk, the interference to radio astronomy caused by satellite radio transmissions and even the potential for satellites reentering the atmosphere to affect Earth’s climate or harm humans on the ground. ..

The day after the GAO report’s release, the FCC  announced the creation of a new bureau for its space activities, which will help the agency handle the applications for 64,000 new satellites it is presently considering…

Excerpts from  Jonathan O’Callaghan Satellite Constellations Could Harm the Environment, New Watchdog Report Says, Scientific American, November 24, 2022

Nuclear Power Invades Space

The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) is testing a technology known as “nuclear thermal propulsion”… DARPA spacecraft will carry a small nuclear reactor. Inside, uranium atoms will be split to generate tremendous heat…to produce thrust. Such a spacecraft could climb to a geostationary orbit above the Earth, nearly 36,000km up, in mere hours. Satellites that burn normal rocket fuel need several days for the same trip. Nuclear-powered satellites with abundant power would also be hard to destroy—their trajectories could be changed often enough to become unpredictable. DARPA  wants to test its spacecraft, dubbed DRACO  (Demonstration Rocket for Agile Cislunar Operations), in orbit in 2025.

Other proposals are for radioisotope thermoelectric generators (RTGs). These kinds of “nuclear batteries” have long been used to power probes sent into deep space, where solar power is especially feeble. Instead of building a nuclear reactor, an RTG uses devices called thermocouples to produce a modest wattage from heat released by the decay of radioactive isotopes. Plutonium-238, which is a by-product of weapons development, has been used by NASA to power both the Voyager probes, launched in the 1970s and still functioning, as well as the Curiosity rover currently trundling around Mars. Plutonium-238, however, is heavily regulated and in short suppl..Cobalt-60, with a half-life of 5.3 years, is a promising alternative and available commercially.

DARPA Draco Image https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=h3ubR9F55nk

How safe is it, however, to send nuclear devices, especially reactors, into space?…A danger is accidental atmospheric re-entry. The Soviet Union flew at least 33 spy satellites with nuclear reactors for onboard power (but not propulsion). In one accident, the reactor in a satellite named Kosmos 954 failed to ascend into a high-enough “disposal orbit” at the end of its mission. In 1978 it ended up spraying radioactive debris over a swathe of Canada’s Northwest Territories…The fuel for the Soviet Kosmos 954…was 90% uranium-235, similar to the material used in the atom bomb detonated over Hiroshima in 1945…

America is not alone in its nuclear quest. China and Russia are also developing nuclear power for space. China’s wish list includes a fleet of nuclear-powered space shuttles. Russia is designing an electric-propulsion cargo spacecraft called Zeus, which will be powered by a nuclear reactor. Roscosmos, Russia’s space agency, hopes to launch it in 2030. The prospect of more capable satellites will, no doubt, raise suspicions among spacefaring nations. Nuclear spacecraft with abundant electrical energy could be used to jam satellite communications…..

And not all of the interest in nuclear power comes from the armed forces. NASA…wants a nuclear plant to power a base on the Moon

Excerpt from Faster, higher, stronger: Why space is about to enter its nuclear age, Economist, Feb. 5, 2022