U.S. Satellite Shootdown: The Inside Story

While assessing the hazards of hydrazine reentry from space, a journalist discovers the hazards of media commentary as well

7 min read
U.S. Satellite Shootdown: The Inside Story

Assessing technological risk is a thorny enough problem here on Earth, even with our experience and our intuition about familiar uncertainties, factors, and processes. But transport the problem into the unearthly venue of outer space, where human experience is limited, and sound assessment becomes astronomically more challenging.

A notable and illuminating case in point was the U.S. decision earlier this year to use a missile to knock out a derelict spy satellite, to head off the possibility of its splashing a half ton of toxic hydrazine fuel somewhere on Earth. That official explanation of the shootdown--and, it turns out, an entirely plausible and credible explanation--nonetheless met with a chorus of public criticism and skepticism. Coming as it did barely a year after China shot down one of its satellites with a missile, in what struck many observers as an obvious antisatellite weapon demonstration, the U.S. shootdown was widely, but I believe incorrectly, seen as a response to that event.

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Top Tech 2022: A Special Report

Preview two dozen exciting technical developments that are in the pipeline for the coming year

1 min read
Photo of the lower part of a rocket in an engineering bay.

NASA’s Space Launch System will carry Orion to the moon.

Frank Michaux/NASA

At the start of each year, IEEE Spectrum attempts to predict the future. It can be tricky, but we do our best, filling the January issue with a couple of dozen reports, short and long, about developments the editors expect to make news in the coming year.

This isn’t hard to do when the project has been in the works for a long time and is progressing on schedule—the coming first flight of NASA’s Space Launch System, for example. For other stories, we must go farther out on a limb. A case in point: the description of a hardware wallet for Bitcoin that the company formerly known as Square (which recently changed its name to Block) is developing but won’t officially comment on. One thing we can predict with confidence, though, is that Spectrum readers, familiar with the vicissitudes of technical development work, will understand if some of these projects don’t, in fact, pan out. That’s still okay.

Engineering, like life, is as much about the journey as the destination.

See all stories from our Top Tech 2022 Special Report

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