Other close encounters to watch out for


The sky is not falling… yet.

We all have something to worry about – from COVID-19 and climate change to holiday shopping, and even the fate and fortune of our chosen football team (Birds Up!) – so you don’t need that. I’m adding something to your list.

Still, here’s the bad news: You should be concerned about space as well. It’s easy to forget that space is only 60 miles above our heads, with the International Space Station flying at 17,500 miles per hour at around 250 miles above the ground. We take for granted how reliant we have become on the global space infrastructure of satellites that provide GPS, weather forecasts and instant global communication.

It’s time to start paying attention to what’s going on in space.

China recently tested a “fractional orbital bombardment system,” which is a fancy way of saying it flew a nuclear-capable hypersonic missile around the globe before hitting a target in China. The Chinese could use a system like this to hit targets in the United States with virtually no warning, and at the moment there isn’t much we can do to stop it. The United States’ missile defense capabilities are also insufficient to stop a large volley of ballistic missiles from an equipped and determined adversary.

Russia demonstrated an anti-satellite weapon test in which a land missile was fired at a retired Soviet satellite in low earth orbit. This prompted the International Space Station crew, including a Russian commander, to temporarily take refuge in the Dragon and Soyuz Mods as even pea-sized space debris at orbital speeds can tear through metal. like overpowered mortar shells.

The insane test generated thousands of space debris that will remain in orbit for several years. We have entered an era where continued reckless behavior in space could cripple our modern orbital infrastructure. Recent estimates suggest that there are more than 100 million pieces of man-made debris in Earth orbit. It is not crazy to imagine orbital space as an impassable minefield of abandoned satellites and other garbage caused by our own malfeasance and neglect.

We also need to be concerned about asteroids. While scientists believe they have listed almost all of the largest “planet-killer” asteroids in our neighborhood, there are around 20,000 “medium” asteroids capable of razing a city, of which we have identified less than half. As part of its planetary defense directive, NASA is launching the Double Asteroid Redirection Test, or DART, mission to test a way to redirect an Earth-bound asteroid. We just need to detect them first, and unfortunately many recent asteroids were not detected until after they had stormed or, in the case of the 2013 Chelyabinsk meteor, until impact.

These problems require attention now. I imagine that the best solutions will involve a mixture of diplomacy, international cooperation and technological advancements.

We’re doing what we can here at the University of Texas at San Antonio, for example, with a growing aerospace engineering program and the completion of a new hypersonic wind tunnel. Fostering a diverse and technically trained workforce is a good place to start.

But as a country, we need to do more. So go out tonight, look at the stars and enjoy the space. If you time it right, you might see the space station go by. Because, at least for today, the sky is not falling. Let’s try to keep it that way.

Chris Combs is an assistant professor endowed with Dee Howard and the Aerospace Program Coordinator in the Department of Mechanical Engineering at UTSA.

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