Hal Bidlack

Hal Bidlack

Way back in 1958, two events took place within 48 hours of each other that have great significance, at least to me. On March 17 of that year, the United States launched one of our very first satellites into Earth orbit. The small ball, roughly the size of a big grapefruit, was called Vanguard 1 and it coasted around our planet at an altitude of a tad under 400 miles. Oh, and the other event, two days earlier, was my arrival on Planet Earth, though I admit that event garnered far less international news coverage. Still, it mattered to me.

Now some 63 years later, both Vanguard 1 and I are still around. My existence isn’t too starling, but it is remarkable that that tiny satellite is still up there. All of the other early satellites launched by the US and by the USSR (at the time) have long since seen their orbits degrade and the hardware has burned up in the Earth’s atmosphere. But tiny Vanguard 1 was launched into a much higher orbit than most satellites, and so it continues to zip around our planet, decades after it launched. Its batteries failed in 1964, and while historic, it is now just space junk — the very first piece of space junk, but far from the last.

A recent Colorado Politics article caused me to reflect back on tiny Vanguard. I remembered back to my early days as an officer in the US Air Force, when, while visiting NORAD headquarters in Cheyenne Mountain, I asked the controller we were speaking with to show me where Vanguard was at that moment. He typed in the object number, which was “1,” into his computer, and up popped a global plot of the current position. It was over the Pacific, as I recall. At that time, the total number of objects being tracked by NORAD was well into the tens of thousands. Some items are almost funny, like the astronaut’s backup glove that drifted out of the open door and into space during the Gemini 4 mission. Other debris up there includes rocket upper stages of previous satellite launches, now dead and tumbling through space, dead satellites, and other bits of spacecrafts. 

Oh, and we have the Chinese to thank for a few extra 10,000 hunks of space junk, after they conducted a test in 2007 to see if their “anti-satellite” weapon could blow up one of their own dead satellites. It worked and created a vast cloud of brand-new space junk.

Today, space junk is a significant problem for space-faring nations. The International Space Station, for example, on occasion has had to maneuver out of the way of hunks of junk that could punch a hole in the station. The junk is a very real threat to our space operations, and it is getting worse.

So it was quite interesting to read about Denver-based Astroscale, a smallish company that just took a baby step, but a very important baby step, toward being able to not only clean up space junk, but eventually to even dock with and repair satellites that need fixing. In this test, the company launched two payloads: the first was the test dummy representing space junk, and the other was the capture gizmo. The good news is that the magnetic attractors on the capture satellite worked, and they were able to “collect” their test article. 

While this may not seem too significant in a world where we see a few billionaires launching themselves up there, and while Space X continues to have great success in flying to the ISS and beyond, this really is a big deal, and it is happening here in Colorado. We are currently tracking more than 27,000 pieces of space junk that are roughly golf ball sized and up. There are tens of thousands of smaller bits up there as well but are too small to be individually tracked. But even a fleck of paint, traveling at orbital velocities, can do damage. NASA had to replace several space shuttle windshield panels due to tiny bits of paint, moving at over 17,500 mph, hitting and damaging the window.

So, it is very exciting to see these initial steps and successes by Astroscale. The company hopes to become the “AAA” of space, able to clean up junk and repair satellites that would otherwise become more junk. And where one company sees success, our capitalistic system will likely see other companies jumping in with their own innovations and hardware.

From time to time, my mind wanders to that tiny ball of long-dead computer circuitry and batteries, silently flying through space, with the wonderous Earth rolling by below. If my back-of-the-envelope calculations are correct, Vanguard has orbited our planet just under 250,000 times. Even at the high orbit flown by Vanguard there are tiny tendrils of atmosphere that create drag and are very gradually slowing the spacecraft down. Eventually, in a couple hundred years or so, Vanguard will finally fall back to Earth, unless we send a mission up to recover the space pioneer to put it in the Smithsonian. 

I kind of hope they do, and maybe it will be Colorado’s Astroscale that goes and gets it.

Hal Bidlack is a retired professor of political science and a retired Air Force lieutenant colonel who taught more than 17 years at the U.S. Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs.

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