Weekend Feature: Orbiting Eyes –Things You Didn’t Know Satellites Are Doing (Today’s Most Popular)

Google_satellite Creating space plagues

Many astro-boffins are upset that there isn't more money and attention for the space program, but few would go as far as a group of researchers from the Arizona State University who created a super-infectious strain of space bacteria.  We can only imagine that the next time they request funding they'll be casually juggling glass vials of the super-space-disease and contemplating how terrible it would be if there was an accident.

The team collaborated with NASA shuttle mission STS-115, soon to be known as "The end of the old ways", conspiring to expose Salmonella microbes to the stresses of space travel "to investigate the effect of space flight on cellular and physiological responses" i.e. to see what happens.  Please remember that the last people exposed to space radiation to see what happened developed superpowers and became the Fantastic Four.  IWe might have suggested choosing a Nobel peace prize winner or a firefighter for this experiment, not a disease known for extremely unpleasant days in the bathroom.

Unfortunately we were not on hand to advise/sabotage this shadowy team of superbug makers, and their devilish plot succeeded.  The returning microbes are now three times as nasty as their primitive Earth-bound cousins.  The scientists responsible continue to act like successfully creating a cosmic gut-plague was a good thing.

Tracking cows

The Yorkshire Dales National Park Authority will use Global Positioning System-enabled collars to track the movements and eating habits of a herd of fifty cows.  The idea of satellite tracking animals is nothing new, but it's normally for animals that move around just a little bit more in environments a little more challenging than the scenic Yorkshire dales..  Whoever went all the way to "use space technology" to answer the question "What do cows eat?" missed a few simple steps including:

a) Walk over to the cows
b) Look at what the cows are eating
c) Identify this strange green bladed plant that seems to grow everywhere, underneath the sky which is blue.

Locating delicious barbecued turtles

Those worried about the ultimate big brother turning us all into obedient cattle (though I can't imagine how anyone would get that idea from this article) doesn't need to worry.  The fact is that those satellites are an incredibly large distance away, and while they can watch all they want they can't interfere in any way. 

Like the lonely soul watching the late night skin flicks, they are to be pitied instead of feared.   This was never more clear than the case of the San Diego biologists using GPS tracking to keep an eye on a 50 year old giant sea turtle, 110 kilograms of rare sea animal, and were worried when transmissions ceased after three months.  Investigating the creature's last known position, they found that the turtle wasn't well – it was delicious.

A local village had caught and eaten the turtle, the barbecuing and consumption not being a process the transmitter had been designed to deal with.  Worse, thousands of school children had been tracking the turtle online to learn about ecology and conservation – and we have to admit this was a much more effective lesson about conservation than the teachers were expecting.

The ultimate back seat driver

A safety program tested in the UK could enable satellites to cut your speed from space if it thinks you're going too fast.  A little hypocritical, since geosynchronous satellites clock up 3 km/s (that's 6,750 mph) to you, but at thirty million meters up at least they're safe from road rage reprisals.  The scheme is called "Intelligent Speed Adaptation" (ISA), showing that those responsible at least have good PR skills because in no way does that name suggest "slowing down" or "we will take over your car".

Unfortunately those behind the study have contaminated their own data: the test cars were twenty modified Skoda Fabias.  Unless those modifications went beyond "adding gps controls" and into "make it look like something other than a Skoda Fabia", no-one is going to do anything that risks drawing attention to them driving a Skoda.  Besides the fact that people who answer "yes please!" to the question "Would you like to drive a car that won't let you go fast?" are not a good test market, in the same way a chess club isn't a great place to test punchbags.

Creating irony
While satellites have been used to find natural resources on Earth and have even been proposed to harvest energy from space , only a group of UK researchers have managed to use space itself to produce that rarest of elements – irony. 

A team from the University of Surrey designed a compact nanosatellite designed to remove the larger pieces of trash in orbit around the Earth.  It's no secret that there's an awful lot of junk up there and that even a fleck of paint moving at orbital velocities can smash a hole in anything (a fact that has been quoted in every single documentary and article on space since 1970).

The SNAP satellite was intended to latch onto a large piece of space debris and use its boosters to heroically pull itself and the junk into re-entry where both burn up.  Unfortunately during testing unexpected factors caused the SNAP satellite to veer away from its intended target, and it ran out of fuel before completing its mission.  The report is careful not to reveal the final fate of the satellite, so we can conclude that if there ever is a trash-busting SNAP-2, its mission will be "Go up and get rid of SNAP-1".

Unfortunately such a mission isn't on the cards as the team have not yet secured funding for a second trial.  It just goes to show – if you want to sell TV or cellphones there are buyers lining up around the block, but doing something stupid like "improving the situation for everyone" won't earn you any money.

The Daily Galaxy via

http://www.ee.surrey.ac.uk/SSC/research/astrodynamics/rendezvous http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/science/nature/797338.stm


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