“Ah, the peace and quiet of outer space,” sighs Biff as he floats along in Low Earth Orbit. These cleanup missions are probably the favorite part of his job, almost like a vacation. No doubt when others think about getting away, their first thoughts are usually about the ocean or maybe a mountain retreat. But let’s be honest: When you are looking to leave it all behind, can you really do better than a private cabin 250 miles above the Earth?
Biff shakes off his bliss as he notices that the first target is coming within range. Space junk. Ugh, what a disaster! By the end of the first 50 years of space flight, the near-Earth surveillance were tracking more than 13,000 man-made objects greater than a softball. Nobody knows how many pieces were smaller than that. The present target is larger, but nothing that Biff can’t handle.
Before the 2020s, the space junk issue was a problem, but it was manageable. Most of the satellites were either focused on single missions or members of small constellations. The largest constellations were the Global Positioning System satellites and Iridium. Most people don’t remember the Iridium constellation, created by Motorola in the 1990s in order to expand cell phone coverage world-wide. With 66 satellites in orbit (plus spares), the constellation was one of the largest operational systems at the time. However, like everything else in the first half of the 21st century, the Internet changed everything.
By the year 2014, Google and Facebook reached approximately one out of every six people on the planet, or roughly half of the total Internet population. To continue growing, Google, Facebook and surely others determined that they must bring the Internet to the two-thirds of the world that remained unconnected. Google initiated Project Loon to broadcast services from high-altitude balloons. Facebook and Internet.org also explored using long-endurance aircrafts and laser communications. Both teams were interested in satellites. Hundreds and hundreds of satellites.
Google’s first constellation was launched in 2018 (or somewhere thereabouts) and utilized 180 satellites to create a worldwide Internet hotspot. To keep the power requirements feasible and the weight down, Google put these first-generation satellites in an orbit lower than typical. While this design proved very effective in providing coverage, the satellites had a bad habit of falling out of orbit. (Thank goodness the air drag models have improved in the last century!) By the third generation of satellites, the electronics and launch capabilities had improved to the point that higher orbits became desirable. Then on the day of Google’s 2000th satellite launch, it happened.
The collision wasn’t the first between satellites in Low Earth Orbit. For example, in 2009, one of the Iridium satellites collided into a defunct Russian communications satellite. But this was the first collision between a satellite and a manned-spacecraft. The SpaceX Dragon X was ferrying Microsoft personnel between its in-orbit data centers when the Google satellite hit. Fortunately, the impact wasn’t catastrophic. The crew and passengers were able to evacuate using their extravehicular protocols. The wake-up call to the world was heard loud and clear.
Biff is part of the team that now floats around the world, scavenging space for the remnants of the past. More often than not, a simple nano-sat deployment is all that is needed to impart sufficient delta V to deorbit the artifact. Sometimes, like today, Biff is presented with an opportunity to touch history. As Biff drifts closer and recognizes the profile, a smile forms. “There can’t be many of these left,” thinks Biff as he moves forward to capture a fully-intact, first-generation Google original.
Until next time, I’m off the grid @gregory_a_baker.