The sky is falling?
The sky is not falling. That used to be something you said to Armageddon aficionados as an antidote to their end-of-the-world predictions.
It appears that cliché is in need of some revision. The Russian MIR space station is slated to crash land on earth today. On its decent, experts say most of the 135-ton space station will burn up. But they expect about 40 tons, or about 1,500 fragments, to survive re-entry and hopefully land somewhere in the Pacific Ocean between Australia and Chile.
Some of the debris will be the size of a small car. CNN reported two weeks ago that the MIR crash landing is causing international anxiety. Australia, Japan and US officials are reportedly keeping a close eye on the soon-to-be falling spacecraft, which happens to be the heaviest object orbiting the planet, second only to the moon.
According to the German newspaper Gild, an interior (German) ministry report says that errant debris could shower Germany and neighboring countries in southwestern Europe. Experts say that a minor fluctuation in atmospheric conditions or a slight human miscalculation of the debris trail could drastically alter the course of the debris.
It's a scary thought considering that this stuff will be descending on earth at a speed of almost a mile per second! But don't worry. I'm sure they'll give you ample warning if some "errant debris" accidently starts heading toward your house. And then maybe you could do what that Australian guy on the Yahoo commercial does - order a bunch of pillows on the internet and use them to cushion the collision.
There are developments in space exploration more horrifying than space debris slamming into a population center. Dr. Michio Kaku, professor of theoretical physics at the CUNY Graduate Center, and SUNY professor of journalism Karl Grossman, say the MIR ren-entry should cause global concern about launching nuclear power into space.
"This is a grim reminder that we are playing Russian roulette with the cities of the Earth. Back in 1978 the Russian Cosmos 954 nuclear-powered satellite also plunged to Earth, releasing 100 pounds of highly enriched uranium," Kaku says.
"If Cosmos 954 had sprayed debris over populated land, it would have created a catastrophe of nightmarish proportions. Fortunately, it landed in the tundra of northwest Canada," he says.
Grossman adds, "Isaac Newton remains correct: what goes up, usually comes down. We can't continue to willy-nilly send space nuclear devices up, and then cross our fingers and hope they don't land on a population center." Since the beginning of the space age, the US and Russia have launched 68 known nuclear devices. To date nine have fallen back to Earth. There are 34 of these nuclear reactor cores still orbiting our planet and are expected to eventually fall back to Earth, burning up on re-entry, Grossman and Kaku point out.
Grossman and Kaku will be featured speakers this weekend at the Global Network's National Space Organizing Conference in Huntsville, Alabama - home of NASA's Marshall Space Flight Center, where they are now developing nuclear space rockets. (For more information on the militarization of space check out www.space4peace.org).
NASA and the Department of Energy right now are expanding plutonium production for space nuclear power. That's what the talk of a space-based laser is about and the development of Anti-Satellite (ASAT) technology, which has been developing alongside the so-called Ballistic Missile Defense (BMD) system.
Former trident nuclear missile designer and weapons systems researcher Robert Aldridge warns: "BMD and ASAT programs, ostensibly separated and autonomous, have supplemented and reinforced each other for decades." This truth is masked by "the defensive connotations under which they are presented to the public....The announced intentions do not reflect the capability the United States is seeking - a capability revealed by a close study of how military development programs fit together to achieve it. That is an aggressive first-strike capability which is neither defensive nor deterrent," Aldridge says.
Jack Ruina, professor emeritus of electrical engineering at MIT and former president of the Institute for Defense Analyses, explained recently in the Washington Post that the national missile defense currently under development "makes little sense, technically, economically or politically."
"I can understand that the president would want to put a high priority on protecting the nation's populace from nuclear attack, but Bush seems oblivious to NMD's many problems," Ruina wrote.
Is it more likely that Bush is in fact "oblivious" or that he knows what Aldridge is getting at? "BMD (or NMD) programs could well be a front for developing an ASAT capability; at the very least, a parallel effort," Aldridge says.
"In order to neutralize - and selectively deny access to - space, DOD (Department of Defense) must develop the means to control and destroy space assets, while selectively reconstituting its own capability through multiple sources," states the Pentagon's Strategic Studies Group IV paper.
NASA says nuclear power is the most promising way for humans to travel to Mars one day. But according to a National Research Council report called "Protecting the Space Shuttle from Meteoriods and Orbital Debris," there are 110,000 small pieces of space junk orbiting earth at 17,000 mph.
Imagine not being able to explore the heavens because space junk traps us on earth. Imagine nuclear weapons in space. Isn't a collision of some sort bound to happen? Depending on what, how and where the collision occurs, the consequences could be as menacing as Darth Vader's empire. May the Force be with you.