A brief history of space junk in, and above, Aotearoa.
Also known as Point Nemo, the Spacecraft Cemetery is not an anarcho-punk band. It’s a deep-sea graveyard for dead satellites, sensibly located in the Pacific Ocean at the furthest point from any landmass (one of its closest neighbours, the Pitcairn Islands archipelago, is more 1,400 miles away). When you look at it on a big map, though, it’s more in our neighbourhood than, say, New York’s. Case in point: In 2007, the pilots of a Lan Chile Airbus A340 enroute from Santiago to Auckland reported seeing, and hearing, a piece of space debris hurtling by. It was probably bound for Nemo.
“next thing you’ve got yourself a ‘self-sustaining cascading collision’”
Space looks empty, but it isn’t. It’s not even uncrowded. We’ve been sending objects into orbit since the Soviet Union launched Sputnik 1 in 1957, and, in true human fashion, we have left a lot of litter.
The United States Space Surveillance Network tracks about 26,000 pieces of debris orbiting our planet, which is good, but that’s only five percent of the junk that’s up there, which is potentially bad. A further 250,000 smaller fragments are lurking above the planet’s surface, and even wee pieces can be a problem. The Kessler Syndrome is one outcome. Basically, a collision between two objects in space creates debris. This debris then runs into other objects, which creates more debris, which then runs into more objects, and next thing you’ve got yourself a “self-sustaining cascading collision”.
The other problem is, the more stuff we lob up there, the more chance there is of large items falling back to earth and hitting things, or people. Are you really in danger of getting flattened by a rogue panel off Elon Musk’s Starship? Well, no. And also, yes. No, because maths. NASA reckons your odds of being hit by orbital litter are several trillion to one. Still, there have been “incidents”, including several in Aotearoa, even though we are a relatively small target, acreage-wise.
Remember SkyLab? In July of 1979, the 77-tonne American space station had a spot of bother on its way down. It was enough of a worry in our sector that New Zealand’s Ministry of Civil Defence issued a notice to its regional offices warning of 500 incoming pieces “capable of causing injury”, including two weighing more than 1770 kilograms. The potential debris footprint went from Bluff to Honolulu. It missed us, but part of SkyLab did end up strewn across the Western Australian port town of Esperance, who sent NASA a $400 littering fine.
Back to the maths. Oceans cover 70 percent of the earth’s surface, and a lot of the remaining 30% isn’t populated. Then again, tell that to Esperance. Or Ashburton, Fiordland, Naseby and the Muttonbird Islands. Because when it comes to space junk, we’re in the thick of it.
On your next trip through the Maniototo, take a detour off Stage Highway 85 towards the township of Naseby. As you pass Fennessy Road, look to your left. You will spot a cluster of what looks like four skate ramps, except they remind you of the Jodie Foster movie Contact, and they are very, very big.
This is the Kiwi Space Radar (KSR) facility. Built by California-based company LeoLabs on a farm paddock, it opened in 2019 as the first of its kind in the world. LeoLabs runs low earth orbit mapping services and the KSR can pick up fragments as small as two-centimetres in diameter, as far as 1200 kilometres up – impressive considering orbital debris trucks along at eight kilometres per second. This is the other 250,000 fragments previously not on our radar. As LeoLabs CEO Dan Ceperley pointed out, “everyone’s flying blind and no one’s really talking about it.” In orbit, something two-centimetres long has the kinetic energy of a piano moving at 60 miles per hour. A Jaffa could take out a satellite, and your Instagram stories with it.
The KSR is a technology whose time has come, especially with the Bezoses, Musks and Bransons taking up more and more space in space, and it’s a location whose time has come, with the New Zealand Space Agency and Rocket Lab garnering us global astro cred. Which is part of the answer to the question, why Naseby? It’s conveniently located for launch sites in New Zealand and Australia; it plugs a Southern Hemisphere gap in LeoLab’s global network; and Naseby is a dark place, in a good way. It’s on track to becoming Dark Sky Approved by the International Dark Sky Association, with night sky readings confirming it has some of the darkest nights in the country. All the better to see the stars.
It was April of 1972. Bob Evans and his fiancé were visiting his soon-to-be groomsman on the Bayne family farm near Ashburton when the groomsman’s uncle and brother rushed in to say they’d found something unusual, maybe even otherworldly, outside. It was a beach ball- sized sphere made from some sort of alloy, and it had been there for at least a few days. “Two or three mice had made their home under it,” Bob, who is now the treasurer of the Southland Astronomical Society, remembers.
Bob and his friends had found one of several similar objects scattered across the district.
They were all about 38-centimetres across, and they’d landed hot, scorching crops and making deep dents in the soil. Witnesses had seen up to 20 lights streaking above Manapouri, Queenstown and Ashburton at about 11pm on April 2. The next day, 17-year-old Denis O’Sullivan found a strange metallic orb in a turnip field, while farmer John Lindores stumbled across another one on his property, lying next to a 15-centimetre-deep divot. Over the next 18 months, six turned up between Lake Aviemore and Ashburton, as well as other bits of detritus, including a heat shield.
Bob’s sphere had a blackened gash on one side, and an unusual construction. “It was made in two halves, welded together. But the weld was really fascinating; it was both on the inside and outside. How do you weld inside a sphere?” They called the local police, who took it down to the station to keep an eye on it until it could be tested for radioactivity.
Eventually, the Department of Scientific and Industrial Research (DSIR) confirmed the “space balls” did come from a spacecraft. It was hard to nail down which one, though.
The Cold War was pretty hot at the time, and neither the United States nor the Soviet Union were fond of full disclosure. However, the weld that Bob had noticed was a high- tech technique used by the Russians, and the Soviets had been in the vicinity.
The likely culprit is Kosmos 482, an unmanned Soviet vessel launched from Kazakhstan as Venera 9 on March 31, 1972. The vessel was the sister craft to Venera 8, launched four days earlier, which became the second probe to land on the surface of Venus. But this time, the manoeuvre into the Venus transfer trajectory failed. Part of the doomed craft stayed in orbit, but some parts fell back to Earth. The spheres are thought to be part of Venera’s system of pressurised fuel tanks.
Article 5 of the exceptionally-named ‘Agreement on the Rescue of Astronauts, the Return of Astronauts and the Return of Objects Launched into Outer Space’ requires space debris to be reported to the United Nations and then returned to its point of origin, but when it came to the Ashburton space balls, the Soviets never owned up. Some have gone missing, but John Lindores kept his in the corner of his lounge until the late nineties, when he loaned it to Ashburton Aviation Museum, where it is still on display.
After this year’s short (very) trip into space (sort of) on his Blue Origin rocket ship, Jeff Bezos said he was so moved by the sight of our “gem of a planet” from above, he realised we need to “take all heavy industry, all polluting industry, and move it into space.” Bezos obviously missed the “cascading collision” memo.
“Plasma Brakes are cool, and Jeff Bezos is on the wrong side of history”
Meanwhile, in New Zealand, later this year Rocket Lab is planning to launch the AuroraSat-1 from the Mahia Peninsula. Designed by Finnish company Aurora Propulsion Technologies, the AuroraSat-1 is a toaster-sized CubeSat equipped with Plasma Brakes, which will harness charged particles to create drag and control altitude. (CubeSats are mini research satellites. Like the Galactic Empire’s mouse droids in Star Wars, they are super-cute, but some of them are probably up to no good.) The brakes could be used to nudge a defunct satellite out of orbit so it burns up, instead of spending eternity as a collision hazard circling Earth. The lesson? Plasma Brakes are cool, and Jeff Bezos is on the wrong side of history.
ANOTHER SPACE BALL!
Waitutu Lodge is set amongst the ancient podocarp forest that grows thick to the west of the Wairaurahiri River in Fiordland. The only way to get there is by jet boat or helicopter, or by walking more than 30 kilometres along the South Coast Track. It’s remote. In 2005, the lodge’s caretaker, a fellow named Peanut, found a hollow metallic ball on the beach about two kilometres away. Story goes, he carried the 30-kilogram object back to Waitutu by tying it to a pack frame, despite the fact that Peanut probably only weighed 60 kilograms himself. It took him two days. Similar-sized buoys from fishing vessels sometimes wash up, but this one had valves and an unusual weld that hinted at something different.
The consensus at the time was that it was a pressurant tank off a Delta II rocket, the expendable launch vehicle used by the Americans before the Space Shuttle. But its current owner is not so sure. Historian and author Lloyd Esler bought the sphere for its scrap value (about $1000 – titanium is amazing, but it’s not that rare), and now takes it around schools as the ultimate show and tell prop. Lloyd notes that the tanks associated with space ball finds are fairly generic and used on a lot of rockets. Because this one didn’t have any holes in it, and because titanium doesn’t corrode, it could have been floating around for a while before it washed up in Peanut’s neck of the woods. Not that the kids care. “They can’t really damage it because it’s made of titanium, and it’s already got a lovely dent in it where it hit the sea. They enjoy rolling it around and giving it a kick.”
WE ARE STARDUST
Only part of Kosmos 482 fell out of the sky in 1972. Its lander is still up there, a 495-kilogram capsule built to make it through Venus’ corrosive atmosphere, touch down on a volcano-ridden surface with an average temperature hot enough to melt lead, and live long enough to send a few pictures home. Kosmos 482 should have no problem surviving the return to Earth, and scientists predict it will splash down, or crash down, any time this decade.
It’s easy to feel like space is a long way away, and it’s easy to feel like we are too small to make a difference. But look at how space has touched our small place in the small amount of time since Venera 9 broke apart. The extra-terrestrial environment is fragile, and what happens up there impacts (sometimes literally) us. We should take note. We are, after all, made of stardust.