Space Junk and Shooting Stars

In September we marked the 20th anniversary of the launching of the Hubble Space telescope. During the same period, we watched and waited as news was released stating a defunct NASA climate satellite, the size of a school bus, was falling toward the earth.  Then, just in time for Halloween, an x-ray satellite came screaming through the earth’s atmosphere giving an NPR reporter and space scientist some nervous giggles over costume ideas.

Last week an asteroid the size of an aircraft carrier headed for earth. Had it hit a populated area it could have resulted in a blast equal to a 4,000 megaton bomb, a 7.0 magnitude earthquake and/or a 70-foot high tsunami. And this week the world is holding its breath wondering what will happen if a stalled Russian space probe, headed for the Martian moon Phobos, cannot be steered back to its flight path and, upon impact, spills tons of highly toxic fuel across the face of the earth.

Today most of what scientists launch into space has a design for demise, meaning it is constructed of materials that will not survive re-entry.  However, others do survive and, at least once a day, some kind of space junk hits the earth! Happily for us 70% of the earth’s surface is water and most of the space junk that makes it through the earth’s atmosphere lands in the ocean. However, not all of it does and that makes me wonder if what hit my friend’s windshield this past weekend with enough force to make it crack really did come from “out of the blue”!

I was amazed to learn more than 4,000 objects larger than one ton have re-entered the earth’s atmosphere since the beginning of the space age.  The United State Space Surveillance Network has cataloged about 16,000 objects larger than a baseball in the earth’s orbit. However, there are countless numbers of smaller objects as well.  So many, in fact, they make up a “cloud” of space junk encircling the earth that can be seen from space by astronauts.

As I look heavenward into the cooler, clearer skies of autumn nights, I cannot help but agree with the author of Psalm 19 who wrote, “The heavens declare the glory of God; the skies proclaim the work of his hands”.  The things man has so cleverly set in orbit are becoming more and more troublesome while the planets and stars our Creator placed in space continue to light the sky and thrill us with new discoveries. The moon and sun have regular eclipses but always reappear, comets streak across the sky with long tails aglow but do not harm us, huge asteroids safely pass us by and our atmosphere is just dense enough to protect the earth from some twenty million meteors that enter it daily.  If a meteorite does fall to earth, men race to find it considering it a treasure of great value and beauty – not space junk!

Some scientists are saying the stalled Russian spacecraft could become the most dangerous manmade object ever to hit the planet.  Others believe its fuel will probably explode harmlessly in Earth’s upper atmosphere. Either way, watching the skies for exploding rocket fuel rather takes away the romance of looking for shooting stars, wouldn’t you say?

Do not be dismayed.  While we launch November satellites that quickly become space junk, December is coming with the ancient and timeless Christmas story of Jesus’ birth beneath the star of Bethlehem.  A “star” astronomers now believe was actually the aligning of two planets and one star in a one-time configuration that produced a brilliant light in the heavens for the Wise Men to follow.  Cheer up and look up! God is still in control and truly, “the heavens declare His glory!”

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Penny L. Hunt

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