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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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Two men fix metal rods to a gold-foiled satellite component in a warehouse/clean room environment

Technicians at Northrop Grumman Aerospace Systems facilities in Redondo Beach, Calif., work on a mockup of the JWST spacecraft bus—home of the observatory’s power, flight, data, and communications systems.

NASA

For a deep dive into the engineering behind the James Webb Space Telescope, see our collection of posts here.

When the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) reveals its first images on 12 July, they will be the by-product of carefully crafted mirrors and scientific instruments. But all of its data-collecting prowess would be moot without the spacecraft’s communications subsystem.

The Webb’s comms aren’t flashy. Rather, the data and communication systems are designed to be incredibly, unquestionably dependable and reliable. And while some aspects of them are relatively new—it’s the first mission to use Ka-band frequencies for such high data rates so far from Earth, for example—above all else, JWST’s comms provide the foundation upon which JWST’s scientific endeavors sit.

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