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Cosmic Exo-Surprise, or, When the Sky is (Really) Falling, What’s the Media to Do?

Ethnography’s reach into the pluriverse of the contemporary moment has no shortage of surprises. In the summer of 2011, my interest in the anthropology of outer spaces drew me to Prague, where I participated as an official “observer” in an international conference on “space security.” The purpose of the event was to bring together space policy professionals and experts from the United States, Europe, and Japan, in support of drafting an International Code of Conduct for the Peaceful Uses of Outer Space. The urgent problem of the day concerned the massive amounts of debris in outer space and its risk to human life, to scientific research and diplomacy, and perhaps most importantly, to telecommunications on earth.

Haunting the conference hall were two event icons: one a targeted destruction, and the other an accidental destruction, of spacecraft and satellites in low earth orbit. Representing the first category was “The Chinese”: the event of January 19, 2007, when the Chinese military shot down one of its own satellites in a region of space occupied by US spy satellites and space-based missile defense systems, and the US response of shooting down one of its own satellites, SA-193, supposedly heading towards earth filled with toxic fuel, almost exactly one year later. Together, these threatened to set off an international arms race, and they inspired worldwide protest.

In the second category was “Iridium”: a spent Russian Cosmos 2551 satellite that had slipped out of orbit and, over Siberia on February 11, 2009, slammed into a communications satellite built by the US company Iridium.

In the case of the Chinese missile that researchers are particularly eager to cite, the impact spalled off more than 150,000 pieces of debris larger than 1 cm.—so it was traceable, as well as capable of creating yet more debris. The American debris cloud matched this.

Read the full article here.