Space debris creating a shell around Earth

Posted March 01, 2009, at 4:12 p.m.

On Feb. 12, a derelict Russian Cosmos satellite and a working U.S. Iridium satellite collided at a speed of about 26,000 mph some 490 miles above the Earth. The collision inevitably will generate thousands of pieces of debris that will add to that already present from past mishaps.

This latest collision will not pose an immediate threat to the international space station that orbits well below the site at an altitude of some 220 miles. It does pose a significant risk, however, for the remaining 65 Iridium satellites that are the basis for a global mobile communications network.

The U.S. Department of Defense monitors more than 18,000 pieces of space junk that could cause catastrophic damage if they hit something. These range from bits of destroyed satellites to discarded rocket fuel tanks to a lost wrench. This debris is creating an increasingly dense shell about the Earth, making near space more hazardous for travel every year.

In 1990 Donald Kessler of NASA’s Johnson Space Center warned that debris could form an impenetrable blanket around Earth by 2020, effectively making us earthbound and ending much of the projected future space exploration.

Focus on the planets

Mercury starts the month very low in the southeast at dawn. Mercury will disappear into the sun’s glare in a few days.

Venus dominates the western horizon at dusk to begin the month but rapidly descends as it prepares to enter the morning sky. On March 25, Venus can be spotted low on the horizon both at sunset and sunrise. By month’s end Venus rises nearly an hour before the sun.

Mars is low and faint in the southeast to the lower left of Jupiter but will be very hard to spot with the naked eye. On March 24, a thin crescent moon is to the upper left of Mars.

Jupiter slowly climbs up the southeastern horizon as March progresses. Use Jupiter to locate Mars and Mercury on March 22 when the gas giant is just to the lower left of the crescent moon.

Saturn is at its peak for 2009 on March 8 when it is closest to Earth and at its biggest for the year. Saturn is at opposition on this date as well, meaning it rises in the east around sunset and sets in the west at dawn. Saturn’s rings are now nothing more than a thin, dark band across the face of the planet, but this does allow for a better view of its major moons dancing across the face. On March 13, telescopes will reveal four of Saturn’s moons bunched together on one side of the planet.

Uranus and Neptune are lost to view for those in northerly latitudes during March.

March events

1 Sunrise, 6:14 a.m.; sunset, 5:22 p.m.

2 Look to the west at 8 p.m. where the crescent moon is to the upper left of Venus. The Pleiades are just above the moon.

4 Moon in first quarter, 2:45 a.m.

7 Moon is at perigee, or closest approach to Earth.

8 Spring forward! This is the second Sunday in March and time to set your clocks ahead one hour as the nation goes from standard time to daylight-saving time until next fall.

11 Full moon, 10:37 p.m. The full moon of March is known as the Worm Moon, Sap Moon or Crow Moon. The sun is entering Pisces on the ecliptic.

15 Ides of March. Julius Caesar should have stayed in bed!

17 St. Patrick’s Day. The almanac says its time to sow peas.

18 Moon in last quarter, 1:49 p.m.

19 The moon is at apogee, or farthest distance from Earth.

20 Spring, or vernal, equinox, 7:45 a.m. The sun has crossed the ecliptic back into the northern hemisphere and enters the astrological sign of Aries but astronomically is still in Pisces.

22 The crescent moon lies to the upper right of Jupiter at dawn.

26 New Moon, 12:07 p.m.

31 Sunrise, 6:19 a.m.; sunset, 7:01 p.m.

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