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April 15, 2008

Telegraph Misrepresents ESA Satellite Diagram

-Patrick S Lasswell

When satellites are shown the size of Scotland, space looks very crowded! The folks at Pajamas Media linked to a Telegraph story purporting to map out all the “space junk”. Regrettably the European Space Agency diagram shows all the satellites, it just does so entirely out of scale. In case you haven't been following the latest developments in space, humans haven't actually lofted any satellites with surface area comparable to Scotland. In fact all of the satellites in orbit today would probably fit side by side with room to maneuver in an average Wal-Mart parking lot. They would rattle around a major stadium's parking. In case you haven't done the math the orbits around the earth are bigger than the surface area of the earth, which is itself larger than a Wal-Mart parking (although just after Thanksgiving this may not appear to be true).

Image (c) ESA

In addition to the scale issue the Telegraph author presented the diagram of all the satellites in a way that indicated that they were all “Space Junk”. In fact the bulk of space junk is clustered around the Near Earth Orbits that require more onboard fuel to resist drag caused by the upper fringes of the atmosphere. When the low flying satellites run out of fuel, they slowly wind down and become “junk”. These satellites are thrown away because it is cheaper to put them into orbit with extra fuel than it is to build a refueling capacity in, send up additional tanker satellites, match orbits, and then de-orbit the tanker. Most of the satellites in the diagram are in and around high geostationary orbit that are much more stable and less likely to become junk.

Who is Paul Eccleston and why does he hate satellites?

Update: Thanks to Kate for the SDA-lanche


Isn't displaying the objects larger than they appear helpful in visualizing just how many there are? After all, it doesn't matter if it's a bolt that slams into your satellite, or Scotland, they both will cause critical damage. And a human has a harder time seeing a bolt in space than Scotland.


Calling a diagram a map is misleading. From the article:

A European Space Agency (ESA) computer-generated picture shows a view from space with the planet surrounded by a snowstorm of space debris.

That is not showing debris, it is showing live satellites. This is really cruddy reporting because it makes no effort to differentiate live and dead satellites shown on the image.

If I showed you a picture of all the pollution causing machines on earth it would show a huge number of hybrid much pollution are they causing? What about windmills that occasionally leak lubricants? What about the dung fires that are not machines, but pollute worse than an SUV?

That is the kind of misleading BS that passes for science reporting and we need to call papers on it.

They look giant galactic can of Off and it's bye-bye Turkish Music Video channel along with all the other stuff we get from satellites.

well i suspect that there is some way that that this story is a precursor to an anti-capitalist global warming crusade to blame global warming on those evil capitalistic cell phone and warmongering spy satellites.
funny how those loonies always miss the one and only thing that brings any warming to the earth everyday.
cue brian regan....the big yellow ones the sun.
the sun makes no income so there is no way to tax it.

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