"...great hail...about the weight of a talent...'
Talmud - Avodah Zarah (footnote)
Sky May Fall on Iridium
By Mary Motta
WASHINGTON - Chicken Little could be in for a big surprise.
Itīs not the sky that will be falling, but if a suitor doesnīt rescue the debt- riddled Iridium satellite-telephone company by March 17, its 66 communication satellites are going to make a rather early reentry.
That deadline was set by Motorola, which has lost nearly $1 billion in the operation and maintenance of the $5 billion, 10- year-old Iridium constellation. Motorola, the founding investor and majority shareholder, holds an 18 percent stake in Iridium.
To stem the bloodletting of cash, Motorola, based in Schaumberg, Illinois, has declined to provide any more funding and has threatened to yank the Volkswagen-size satellites from orbit and send them on a fiery suicide dive through Earth's atmosphere.
"That is a realistic scenario," said Scott Wyman, a Motorola spokesman.
The move came after cellular communications pioneer Craig McCaw and his Eagle River investment group begged off a plan to buy beleaguered Iridium last Friday.
In a desperate move Monday, Iridium asked a federal bankruptcy court in Manhattan for interim financing to keep afloat as it sought out another backer. The court threw the company a lifeline and approved its request for $3 million.
But as the March 17 deadline looms, no savior has yet emerged to rescue Iridium.
Despite industry rumors, itīs unlikely that McCaw and his group of investors will step in at the last minute -- making more likely the prospect of a celestial light show of satellite debris.
"Our decision on Friday was final," said Roger Nyhus, a spokesman for Teledesic. The Bellevue, Washington satellite- communications company was co-founded by McCaw and Microsoft Chairman Bill Gates to build a satellite-based "internet in the sky."
What can be expected from these Iridium satellites being brought back to Earth?
Motorolaīs Wyman says that the company has a "very controlled process" for bringing down the satellites. "They will be brought down in stages, not all at once," he said.
It is expected to take a few years for all 66 satellites to come down.
But the reentry business is an imprecise one at best because objects can survive and make it all the way to the ground, said Bill Ailor, director for the Center for Orbital and Reentry Debris Studies at The Aerospace Corporation in Los Angeles.
Objects typically enter the atmosphere at a blazing 6 miles (9.7 kilometers) per second and are often incinerated by friction with Earth's atmosphere. But materials designed to be heat-resistant often can survive the plunge all the way to the ground. "Typically what we look for are titanium spheres and objects made of stainless steel (to survive)," Ailor says. Glass also can survive.
Itīs unlikely, though, that debris from Iridiumīs satellites will hit a populated area.
"The Earth is a big place," he said. "But the satellites burning up in the atmosphere will probably be visible to the eye."
About 10,000 objects bigger than the size of a basketball are tracked by the Air Force Space Command. So far, only one person ever has been hit by falling debris. In 1997, Lottie Williams (below) was hit on the shoulder by a 6-inch (15-centimeter) charred piece of metal mesh that came from a tank of a Delta 2 rocket. Lottie, who is from Tulsa, Oklahoma, was hit while walking in nearby park.
The tank ... had fallen from the sky hours before and crashed 150 feet (45 meters) from a Georgetown, Texas farmer's house, about 391 miles (629 kilometers) from Tulsa. The giant fuel tank had been spinning in space since April 1996 after helping propel the McDonnell Douglas rocket from Vandenberg Air Force Base in California.
One high note, however, is that the age of random reentries may be coming to a close.
As the number of satellites is expected to increase dramatically because of the current boom in the telecommunications industry, new rules are being considered that would require companies to safely take their satellites out of orbit at mission's end, Ailor said.
Lucky for us because Iridiumīs future seems to be getting dimmer. On the heels of the bankruptcy court authorizing the sale of furniture, fixtures and equipment at Iridiumīs headquarters in Washington, an e-mail was sent out Wednesday that seems to have driven another nail in the companyīs coffin.
"Please note that as of March 16, the Iridium.com e-mail address for me will no longer be valid," said the e-mail sent to reporters from Iridium spokesman David St. John.
Clues to Mysterious Meteor Sounds Sought In Iridium Satellite Suicides
By Robery Roy Britt, Senior Science Writer and Mary Motta, Senior Business
While playing stickball one evening in the early 1970s in Dover, Delaware, Chuck Bonner and his playmates heard a loud, abnormal whistling noise accompanied by a buzz. The teenagers ran around the house, expecting to find an airplane plunging earthward.
Instead they spotted a green fireball as large as a full moon streaking across the sky.
Ever since, Bonner (now a software designer who runs a website called Lunar Colony) has wondered how he could have heard the apparent meteor before he saw it, since sound travels much slower than light.
Scientists have been wondering the same thing -- for a lot longer. And now they have the opportunity to study this phenomenon in a giant lab experiment in the sky.
At Bonner's suggestion, researchers will keep their eyes and ears open to monitor what happens when 66 Volkswagen- sized Iridium spacecraft will be deorbited into a fiery suicide dive to Earth. Scientists hope the artificial meteors will simulate real space rocks burning up in the atmosphere, yielding clues to what causes this mysterious cacophony of sounds.
Mystery meteor sound
There are only a handful of "earwitness" accounts of these melodious symphonies in the sky. One account from China in 817 AD tells of a noise "like a flock of cranes in flight."
A common and curious thread in these tales is that the sound seems to travel at the speed of light -- even faster in some cases, arriving before there was anything to see.
The accounts have confounded scientists for centuries. Assuming a meteor is many miles away as it burns up --most begin vaporizing around at 60 miles (97 kilometers) high -- light would arrive several seconds before sound.
In the early 1700s Sir Edmund Halley, who has a comet named after him, attributed the reports to the observerīs imagination. More recently, one scientist spent decades developing an obscure theory suggesting that these electrophonic sounds, as they are now called, are the results of magnetic spaghetti.
Australian researcher Colin Keay uses the term to describe a theory he developed in the early 1980s.
As the theory goes, when a space rock plunges earthward, friction caused by the atmosphere creates a trail of electrically charged particles, or plasma, in which Earth's invisible but potent magnetic field lines become trapped, tangled and twisted like strings of cooked spaghetti.
This magnetic spaghetti is thought to generate very low frequency radio waves, says Keay, a researcher at the University of Newcastle who, though not famous like Halley, does have an asteroid named after him.
The waves are thought to travel at the speed of light and are converted into sound when they interact near the ground with what are called "dielectric media" or "transducers," which can be massive ordinary objects or electrical activity in the lower atmosphere.
"It's coming out of the realm of myth and into the realm of possibility," said Donald Yeomans, a respected and typically moderate voice on matters of meteors and asteroids. "But there are some serious doubters."
Yet evidence favoring Keay's idea is mounting, and Yeomans said he senses a consensus building among serious scientists that electrophonic sounds from fireballs are something that should be looked into.
Thatīs where Dejan Vinkovic, head of the Global Electronic Fireball Survey at the University of Kentucky, enters the arena. Vinkovic says there are some 700 known reports of electrophonic fireballs. His survey has collected five since the beginning of this year, and he's tracking down another 20 he's heard about.
Because the odds of witnessing the phenomenon are about as likely as hitting it big in the lottery, Vinkovic is going to use Iridiumīs necklace of satellites to simulate the experience.
Based on Chuck Bonner's suggestion via a scholarly newsletter known as CCNet, Vinkovic will suggest to his colleagues around the world that they point their video cameras and radio receivers at the falling satellites, most of which Iridium plans to bring down over the Pacific.
Motorola, which operates the Iridium satellites, is hatching a plan with the input of NASA to bring the giant birds back toward Earth sometime this year.
The satellites, primarily made up of graphite epoxy, fiberglass and aluminum, will be yanked from orbit one by one.
The satellitesī on-board propulsion system, which helped it place it in low Earth orbit, will be used to bring it back down. By slowing its orbit, the satellite is pulled closer to Earth. Once it gets to a couple thousand feet above the surface, aerodynamic forces cause a drag, putting stress on the spacecraft and causing it to break up and burn.
While much of the spacecraft will vaporize, there is a chance some pieces will survive and fall to the planet.
"You can never be sure how a satellite is going to break up," said George Levin, director of the Aeronautics and Space Engineering Board at the National Research Council. "You can only make an educated guess because these satellites were not built as reentry vehicles."
But Vinkovic points out the positive side of deorbiting Iridiumīs satellites.
"One of the problems with meteors is that we don't know what exactly they are," Vinkovic explained. "So, with the Iridium satellites we already know the properties, and we can reduce the number of unknown parameters in our modeling."
By monitoring reentries from around the world, researchers will be able to study whether the local environment or ground configuration affects any possible sounds, Vinkovic told SPACE.com.
How's that sound?
Chuck Bonner would love it if Vinkovic and the other scientists could solve the mystery that has dogged him since the early 70s. Though he struggles to remember his exact age when he saw and heard the apparent meteor, he is clear about details of the streaking green object.
Bonner tells of ridges and depressions on the object, from which green dust or smoke emanated.
"This dust remained as a glowing green trail across the sky that rapidly faded to black or gray, then dissipated," Bonner recalled the other day. "The sound continued long after the fireball was out of sight. I would guess that from the time I first heard it until it faded to inaudibility was about 30 seconds."
(http://www.space.com/science/iridium_sound_000328.html; link no longer active; please contact us if URL is redirected to a questionable site).
24 March 2000: Save Iridium
"Who we are: Save Our Sats is a group of concerned individuals joining together with the common goal of creating the world's first orbiting Open Source public network.
We believe that destroying orbiting resources worth billions of dollars is an egregious error of epic proportions. With effort, dedication, money and commitment, we can save these 66 satellites and turn them into a network that will serve the people who utilise it in ways yet unimagined by today's current technological standards."
8/9/00 Space: The Final Junkyard The Learning Channel
Narrator: "...Commercial exploitation of space now threatens to become a major source of debris. The Iridium Corporation has recently launched scores of telecom satellites. Some have already failed adding to the junk [so far about 13 of 70 have failed]..."
"...a new constellation of nearly 300 satellites is planned for near-earth orbit. Teledesic [http://www.teledesic.com], the brainchild of computer mogul Bill Gates, will provide high-speed internet services world-wide. But will these commercial ventures accelerate environmental disaster? With so much more material in space what scientists now fear is a chain reaction--a catastrophic pile-up with unstoppable clouds of wreckage smashing everything in their path."
Scientist: "There are predictions that as objects collide in space they produce, say, 1,000 fragments. Each of those fragments has the potential to go on and collide with other satellites with each of those producing 1,000 fragments. So we can get a run-away situation called a cascade. This would lead to a debris belt forming around the earth..."
[add to this equation the space station and the Narrator continues:]
"If a catastrophic break-up of the space station triggered a major cascade, vital satellites would be wiped out, manned spaceflight would be suicidal and the fragments would eventually fall to earth in a rain of burning metal junk. Orbiting around us would be rings of glinting debris; the shiny new bars of our planetary prison."
The whole program spoke to the effects already plaguing space flights and satellites orbiting the earth. They've had to worry about space junk which includes waste ejected from Mir's "back door," gadgets that accidentally floated away from astronauts and uranium laced projectiles that supposedly have already fallen to Earth (landing somewhere in Canada) spewing radiation into the atmosphere.
From the TLC website:
Scientists try to crack the mystery of falling ice balls
By MICHAEL WOODS
BARCELONA, Spain - A Spanish-American scientific team is monitoring ice events in the United States this winter following research on a baffling phenomenon first detected here.
They're not watching for ordinary ice storms or slick roads, but incidents involving "megacryometeors," great balls of ice that fall out of the clear blue sky - possibly due to global warming.
"I'm not worried that a block of ice may fall on your head," said Jesus Martinez-Frias of the Center for Astrobiology, in Madrid. "I'm worried that great blocks of ice are forming where they shouldn't exist."
Heads, however, have very nearly been cracked by megacryometeors, a term coined from "mega," which means "big," "cryo" for "ice" and "meteor," the extraterrestrial debris that streak through the atmosphere. Most weigh 25 to 35 pounds, but one whopper found in Brazil tipped the scales at 440 pounds.
Ice balls have punched holes in the roofs of houses, smashed through car windshields and whizzed right past people's heads. Last winter, an ice chunk that eyewitnesses described as "half the size of a car" ripped through the roof of an automobile dealership in Lawrenceville, Ga.
Incidents like those may be just the beginning, according to David Travis, who researches atmospheric conditions that foster megacryometeor formation. He chairs the department of geography and geology at the University of Wisconsin-Whitewater.
"If megacryometeor formation is linked to global warming, as we suspect, then it is fair to assume that these events may increase in the future," Travis said.
Martinez-Frias pioneered research on megacryometeors in January 2000, after ice chunks weighing up to 6.6 pounds rained on Spain out of cloudless skies for 10 days. A government scientific research agency thought the ice might be extraterrestrial, from a comet, and asked him to investigate.
At first, scientists thought the phenomenon was unique to Spain. But they've accumulated strong evidence that megacryometeors are a global event, Travis said. They've documented ice balls falling from cloudless skies everywhere from China to the United States and studied about 20 events outside Spain.
More than 50 falls have been confirmed, and researchers believe that's a small fraction of the actual number, since most may hit unoccupied areas or melt before discovery.
Travis said there appears to be a seasonal pattern to such falls, with most occurring in January, February and March.
"I am anxiously waiting to see what will happen this winter," Travis said. "We'll be keeping a lookout, and we want to make people in every state aware and ask their help. We strongly encourage eyewitnesses to preserve samples, in a freezer if need be, and contact us."
Researchers had samples from the 2000 incidents to analyze, thanks to quick-thinking eyewitnesses who kept the material cold.
Martinez-Frias' team quickly ruled out obvious explanations.
The ice balls, for instance, were not frozen water from toilets flushed on jetliners. The ice contained no human waste and none of the blue disinfectant used in airplane toilets.
Air-traffic-control records showed that no planes overflew the areas near the ice falls, so the ice was not shed from aircraft wings or fuselages.
Chunks of debris from a comet? Comets, after all, are composed partly of extraterrestrial ice. But lab tests showed that ice in megacryometeors had the distinctive chemical signature of ice in ordinary terrestrial hailstones.
When sawed in half, they also showed the physical profile of hailstones.
"These occurrences are not the result of hoaxers, either," Travis said. "There are too many similarities in the atmospheric conditions associated (with) their occurrences that hoaxers would have no knowledge or interest in."
That leaves monster hailstones forming in a cloudless sky, a notion that defies more than a century of research on hail formation.
"Scientists are naturally reluctant to say something never can happen," noted Charles Knight, a hail expert at the University Corporation for Atmospheric Research, a university consortium in Boulder, Colo. "But oh, dear. I would be tempted to say 'never' on this."
Knight said he has reviewed scientific papers published on megacryometeors, and thinks the explanation, which involves unusual atmospheric conditions possibly linked to global warming, is wrong.