Monday, February 18, 2008

Star Wars BS

Bush has decided that we need to shoot down a big military spy satellite that's falling from orbit. He claims that it's to reduce the risk to folks on the ground from a beryllium-lined tank of hydrazine (N2H4) in the satellite that might survive reentry. That's a load of crap.

Anybody who's even slightly familiar with the technical stuff understands that while there's a tiny risk from the satellite, smashing it into pieces that will still mostly fall down doesn't necessarily eliminate that risk, and may actually increase it, while also creating a whole new set of risks to astronauts and other satellites.

I'm not trying to minimize the dangers of large objects falling out of the sky, but I'd much rather have to dodge one big chunk than a bunch of smaller yet still substantial pieces. And hydrazine is indeed nasty stuff. I worked with a guy who had large areas of his face and hands bleached completely white from hydrazine burns. He happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time when there was a fuel leak in a research rocket. But it's extraordinarily unlikely that the hydrazine tank will survive reentry intact, and once breached the hydrazine will dissipate rapidly. Beryllium? Also really nasty, but it's a metal and only a problem if you get it in your lungs, which can only happen when it's oxidized and powdered. Hard to say if smashing the satellite will reduce or increase that risk.

So why is Bush doing this, and who's he trying to fool? There are only two reasonable explanations, and they probably both play into his decision. First is that it provides a convenient excuse to get some good PR for our Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI, or Star Wars) program, and show those damn Chinese and Russians that we're serious! Conservatives are true believers in SDI, and all those huge SDI defense contracts, regardless of the problems with the underlying science and technology. Since SDI has had only marginal success hitting realistic targets, why not go for an easy score? The spy satellite is huge and in a nice predictable orbit. Much easier to hit than a nuclear warhead. Modern warheads are smaller than your hot water heater and offers only a tiny time window for a successful intercept.

The other reason is to prevent pieces of the satellite from falling into the wrong hands. This isn't any old spy satellite, it's a KH-13, our latest and greatest model. Big important chunks are going to survive reentry, and it would be mighty embarrassing if somebody we didn't like ended up with them.

So why is Bush lying about it? He isn't fooling the Russians or the Chinese. They know exactly what's going on. So does most of the foreign media. It seems the only people likely to be gullible and ill-informed enough to fall for his spin are ... us.

One thing worth mentioning, since you probably won't see it elsewhere, is that the primary mirror in a KH-13 spy satellite is probably made of beryllium or beryllium alloy. If so, it's likely that there's far more beryllium in the mirror than in the hydrazine tank. Of course, now that you know that particular secret I'll have to kill you...

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I am a conservative, and the star wars program is a total waste of money and time. It will never work. In trials they cannot even hit an object 50% of the time that is not moving and know where it is. This programs needs to be scrapped