Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Satellites & Feedback Loops

A bit off topic for today, but unfortunately I don't have time this week to get back to the core topics of growth and hierarchy:

Most newspapers and news broadcasts carried a brief segment on last week's satellite collision. The interesting part of this story, from my perspective, is that the vast majority of the news coverage failed to even mention the existence of a positive feedback loop at work in "space junk."

With last week's collision, there are at least 2,000 new pieces of debris in orbit around the Earth--junk that will remain in orbit for decades, and that was not intentionally placed in safe orbits. The result: each of these 2,000 pieces is far more likely than planned satellites to be involved in another collission.

It's a bit like the classic grade school science film explaining fission: a gymnasium full of mousetraps with ping-pong balls positioned on top. You trip one mousetrap, and the ping-pong ball bounces about, triggering several more--a chain reaction begins as each fo these ping-pong balls, in turn, trigger several more traps, until the entire gymnasium is filled with a cloud of bouncing balls.

Earth is currently surrounded by a very sparse cloud of man-made objects. However, each of these is relatively large--in the event of a collission, each can break down into thousands of smaller objects still capable of destroying another spacecraft. With every collission--like what happened last week--a positive-feedback loop is reinforced. Impacts beget more impacts, until eventually this sparse cloud of large objects is a dense cloud of small objects. The potential result: low and medium-earth orbit satellites are no longer viable systems, and it is increasingly difficult to launch higher orbit satellites because they must still cross through this deadly cloud.

While I think the potential to eliminate every system that relies on satellites is very significant, I think it's more significant that our civilizational discourse is so ignorant of feedback loops that the topic simply isn't being discussed. We can live without satellites. Whether or not we can survive long without a basic and widespread awareness of systems theory remains an open question...


tom said...

I enjoyed the post - made me think - the old unintended consequences thing, again.

Funny, you posted on Tuesday morning and late today (Wednesday) I heard a report (with much of what you wrote about) on the radio (ABC news, I think). They missed the part on the positive feedback loop, but I was impressed that they even reported the story.

Rice Farmer said...

I was happy to see you bring this up. When I first read the news about the satellite collision, the first thing that popped into my mind was the significance of this to technological civilization. We have a very high reliance on satellites for communications, radio, TV, GPS, espionage, and what have you. And we've taken all that for granted. But suddenly, something as simple as two of the many satellites in orbit colliding threatens all of that.

Ryan said...

Tragedy of the commons. "Grounds enjoyed by all are tended by none" Another market externality that deregulation and free trade cannot fix.

Anonymous said...

I liked it better when they called it asteroids


Anonymous said...

Haven't checked your site for ages - must be more than 2 years since I last did. Don't know why. I remember printing "A Theory of Power" out and distributing it to a few friends - it helped to clarify, rationalize and put into words a lot of my seemingly abstract thoughts. That was 3 years ago! Anyway, it was good to read your stuff again - will make sure I check back more often!

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