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Sunday, Dec. 28, 2014

Was Chicken Little right?

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Admit it, you looked up at the autumn sky a bit more than usual Friday.

After all, along with billions of stars twinkling on a particularly clear, bright fall evening, there was a piece of space junk the size of a school bus somewhere up there.

It was falling - fast.

And no one knew exactly where that six ton junk of obsolete NASA satellite was going to land.

We knew it was coming, that's for sure. Newscasters delighted in telling us that, like Chicken Little predicted, a bit of the sky was, indeed, falling. With a gleam in their collective eyes, they informed us that NASA didn't THINK the satellite would land on anyone's home, or head. Somehow, I got the feeling they hoped, just a bit, that it might land on the 50 yard line during a high school football game somewhere in western Nebraska.

I just don't understand the uncertainty about the possible landing spot of this satellite.

The commercials tell me that my car has 34 million "thoughts" per second. The space shuttles took off and landed dozens and dozens of times. Computers can tell us everything from the optimum time and temperature to cook my roast to the square root of 34,567.

They figured out how to get it up there, but NOW they're telling us they don't know where it's going to come down?

I'm old enough to remember when the Skylab crashed to earth, back in 1979. John Belushi famously told us "Skylab is falling!" Despite the fact that most of our world is covered by water, that piece of space junk managed to find earth, scaring a bunch of sheep on a ranch in western Australia.

This time, well, they can't really tell us for sure where the satellite fell, guesstimating that it fell into the Pacific off the western coast of the United States - they think.

Again, they put it up there, but can't find it now that it's on earth? Isn't the earth smaller than outer space? And they knew where it was up there.

Well, as it appears we've dodged a very big bullet with the NASA satellite, now the Chicken Little Society has its sights set on an even bigger orbiting hazard - the International Space Station.

That Goliath dwarfs the satellite - at 431 tons it's bigger than a football field. And, as it went up there, it's destined to someday come down.

Scientists plan to utilize the station until at least 2020 - perhaps as long as 2028.

And, scientists have a plan for the "de-orbiting" of that little outer space visitor.

They tell us that they'll guide the station to a fiery touchdown over a large mass of water.

While the satellite got our attention, and the space station inspires awe, actually, the dangers of air - really, really high air- pollution are a daily peril.

There are nearly 22,000 spent rocket stages, dead or dying satellites and countless crumbs of human-made orbital flotsam. An average of one object has reentered Earth's atmosphere every day. A woman in Turley, Oklahoma, got bonked on the noggin on January 1997 when she was struck with a lightweight fragment of charred woven material. She was not injured. The culprit was identified as debris from a Delta 2 booster, which reentered the Earth's atmosphere on Jan. 22, 1997.

Not so harmless was another piece of space junk.

A secret Soviet-navy satellite called Cosmos 954, which was launched on Sept. 18, 1977, spiraled out of control. The spy radar antennas each sported a compact nuclear reactor, making the reentry one of the most frightening to date for people on the ground.

It landed in January, 1978 in Canada, with debris across a wide area of the Canadian Arctic.

In the world of space litter, the heavyweight champ would have to be Mir, heftier in its day than any object (except the moon) to orbit Earth. The 15-year-old Russian space station began its suicidal nosedive on March 23, 2001, as it reentered Earth's atmosphere above the Pacific Ocean near Fiji. Though most of the station, weighing 286,600 pounds (130,000 kilograms), burned up in the atmosphere, about 1,500 fragments reached Earth's surface.

I enjoy looking up at the stars on a clear evening in northwest Iowa. Now, I'm afraid, I'll be judging the velocity to ensure it's not on it's way down.



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Paula Buenger
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