April 27, 2012

Space junk and spring cleaning

by Lorraine Collins

I don't suppose there are a whole lot of people who remember when a satellite named Telstar provided the first transatlantic television transmission from the U.S. to Europe in 1962, but I was reminded of this the other day. Although the broadcast was just 14 minutes long, it included a dramatic scene of Mount Rushmore with the Mormon Tabernacle Choir singing "A Mighty Fortress is our God" and it was thrilling. Telstar was in use for only a few months, but  it's quite possible that it's still circling the globe.

A story on Public Radio recently said the fellows in the International Space Station were told to get into their space lifeboats because some debris was heading their way. If this collided with the space station, they needed to be ready to abandon ship. Luckily, it missed. But it seems there is no shortage of space debris. There are 22,000 objects circling our globe, whizzing by at 17,500 miles per hour. About 1,000 are space craft of some sort, but the rest is just space junk, some of it only a few inches long.

I haven't checked lately, but Telstar was reported to be still orbiting the earth in 2010. I suppose it's true that what goes up must come down eventually, but meanwhile bits and pieces of defunct satellites and other debris continue to clutter up what we refer to as space. At least this belt of working satellites and debris may provide us some protection from invasion by space aliens who will have to wade through it all to get to us. Think of it as barbed wire around the perimeter.

We don't often think of the trash that is flying overhead, unless we are threatened with a chunk of a Soviet spacecraft plummeting toward earth, which happened recently. Fortunately,  since two-thirds of the earth is covered by oceans, that chunk, like many others, fell harmlessly into the sea. The bad news is, the oceans are being clogged up with millions of tons of debris that did not fall out of the sky but were deposited by more mundane means.

Those of us who live out here in the middle of the continent probably think more often of the sky than the sea, since we can see the sky. Yet we may be vaguely aware that there are very large garbage patches in both the Atlantic and Pacific oceans. Miles and miles, acres and acres of mostly plastic debris float just below the surface, moving as the ocean currents direct. According to the Ocean Conservancy, volunteers picked up nine million tons of debris on seashores last year. I'm not sure what's being done about all the miles of debris floating in the middle of the oceans, and I sure don't know what's going to happen to all the sad detritus generated by the tsunami in Japan that has sent millions of tons of debris floating on the ocean, some of which is headed toward us. But sooner or later I think somebody is going to have to pay attention to all this.

It's depressing for me to think of all the clutter and junk in the garage, the basement, my office, let alone that heading inexorably toward me by air and sea. I have the accumulation of a lifetime to deal with, even though I have moved several times, have auctioned off possessions, given hundreds of things away, donated to libraries, rummage sales, carted trailer-loads of stuff to the landfill and have shown up at the farms and houses of unsuspecting relatives with a ton or so of excess stuff for them to store, as we claimed, for a year or so. All right, it was eight years but we did reclaim it eventually. Well, most of it. Some of it.

This is the time of year when we begin to look around and consider what changes we can and should make in our houses and gardens and lives, and since spring seems to have come so early this year, everything is coming at us even faster than usual. There's hardly time to think of what we should do, because we should already be doing it. Yet we could sit out of an evening and look at the sky and think about how we affect the only home we know---this planet---and how we can be respectful of it. I'll try that. It may inspire me to clean out the garage.

Lorraine Collins is a writer who lives in Spearfish. She can be contacted at collins1@midco.net.

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