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The cascade effect

The cascade effect

On Tender

At the dawn of the year 2000, amidst the hope and trepidation of what a new year, a new decade, a new century and a new millennium would bring, a small crowd gathered on a hill top to be the first people in the world to see the sunrise of the new era.

The Chatham Islands were the first land to see the sun (actually it was quite overcast) of a new age; the age of technology. Thirteen years later the Chatham Islands is about to get broadband. MoBI has an RFP out to supply the entire island group with satellite-linked internet.

Meanwhile, a rock the size of a town hall is about to fly past the Earth at a similar distance to a deliberate miss from one of Robin Hood’s arrows. The good folk of NASA tell us this space boulder which has been named “2012 DA14” will fly past our shiny blue planet and pass within the realm of our fixed-position geostationary satellites, the ones we point our TV dishes at. “The odds of an impact with a satellite are extremely remote," says Don Yeomans of NASA's Near Earth Object Program. “Almost nothing orbits where DA14 will pass the Earth.”

I’m not comfortable with the phrase “almost nothing”. At the risk of sounding like Yoda, there is no ‘almost nothing’, there is either nothing or something.

I’m not comfortable because I once had the honour of interviewing Sir Arthur C Clarke at his home in Sri Lanka. During the course of my research I discovered that Charlie, or Chazza, invented the theory of satellite communication. It is tribute to his genius that we can happily watch the Olympic opening ceremony on the telly and talk to my dear old Mum’s nostrils via her iPad’s front-facing camera on Skype.

Not only did Clarkie invent the theory of fixed-orbit satellite communication he also predicted a doomsday scenario that our friend 2012 DA14 is perilously close to bringing to fruition. Sir Chucky thought that once there were more than a few satellites in space (happily floating in what we now call the Clarke Belt) there would be a risk of what he called the “Cascade Effect” where once a satellite is rammed at space speeds it explodes with such energy that its parts expand in a circle of debris along the same lines as the next satellite. This debris, travelling at equally fast speeds, faster than Superman, eventually collides with another satellite, which in turn explodes and sends out pieces which eventually collide and destroy other satellites, and so the cascade effect of the debris field goes on rapidly expanding until it destroys all satellites, and not only surrounds the Earth with a cloud of space junk debris, but severely limits our ability to send up any form of space vehicle because our skies would be obstructed by a scrap yard of twisted metal parts too numerous to track or count.

I somehow feel that the poor old Chathams may be like little Pinocchio as featured in the second Shrek movie, (I have kids and their movies happen to be my only frame of reference half the time) where he is suddenly hit by the Fairy God Mother’s wand which turns him into a real boy, then moments later hit again and turned back into a puppet. If the Chathams gets its treasured broadband complete with high availability of streaming video, prioritised school traffic, Skype video access, HDTV, and voice over IP for all and sundry, it may not be forever.

The job of supplying the Chathams with a satellite uplink, broadcast tower, relay stations and subsequent ISP services should be relatively easy considering the last decade’s advances in comms tech. So I predict the RFP will be a popular one which will receive many innovative solutions. Let’s just hope 2012 DA14 does exactly what is predicted of it on Valentine’s Day and all it hits is our hearts as we make our wishes while it flies by.


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