Tag Archives: Linda Dawson

War in space

If there’s a war in space it won’t involve huge fleets of ships in a shoot-‘em-up accompanied by classical music, as battle is often depicted in science fiction movies.

“Our war in space won’t be particularly a Star Wars version,” according to Linda Dawson, senior lecturer emeritus in physics and space sciences at the University of Washington Tacoma and author of the recent War in Space: The Science and Technology Behind Our Next Theater of Conflict (Springer Praxis Books, 2018). Dawson recently gave a talk about the book at the Museum of Flight.

Linda Dawson
Linda Dawson, author of War in Space, spoke Sept. 14, 2019 at the Museum of Flight. Photo: Greg Scheiderer.

“Spacecraft with weapons in space are still pretty far in the future,” Dawson said. “We’re talking decades.”

Such a conflict would likely destroy every spacecraft in orbit, according to Dawson.

“That kind of a battle would end up disastrous for everyone involved,” she said. “The war would be over in a matter of minutes if that happend just outside of Earth orbit, and it would affect us on Earth for decades.”

That’s not necessarily what is preventing it from happening.

“Space is a very harsh theater of war,” Dawson said, listing the lack of air, extreme temperatures, radiation, and space junk as just the start of the problems such a war would face.

“Access [to space] is expensive and technologically challenging,” Dawson said. “It’s not like we would choose to go to outer space to engage in a war. It’s just that we have spacecraft up there that we all depend on, and so it is an area that is intriguing to countries that don’t agree with each other.”

The likely nature of war in space

War in space would be more subtle than a bunch of big explosions. A variety of weapons, including Earth-to-space, space-to-Earth, and space-to-space varieties are possible. Lasers, missiles, and various “kill vehicles” or “jammers” could be employed to foul up orbiting assets. Space debris itself could be a weapon. Take a look at this video from NASA:

Video Credit: NASA Orbital Debris Program Office at JSC

Earth is at the center of the graphic, and each of the dots represent spacecraft, whether working or not. There’s a lot of junk out there. The Kessler syndrome is a scenario proposed in 70s by NASA scientist Donald Kessler; it posits that if there’s a dense enough amount of debris in space, then one collision or explosion could create a chain reaction of other colllisions or explosions.

“Pretty soon all you have is debris out there and you can’t get through it,” Dawson said. That would make it extremely difficult to operate existing satellites or launch new ones.

We sometimes don’t realize how much we depend on space systems. Wrecking all of those satellites would mess up a lot of things, from our GPS navigation systems to television signals, data exchange, air traffic control, communication systems, and weather forecasting. It would be a total pain.

Though a number of different entities are tracking space debris, it continues to get more challenging. Space X plans to launch 12,000 cube sats to create broadband service; these smaller objects are harder to track. There are unanswered questions about who owns space debris and who can or should clean it up.

“Major spacefaring nations have all been increasingly aggressive with military and surveillance operations in space,” Dawson added.

Preventing war in space

Dawson said the notion of preventing war in space is simple on its surface. It’s the same as preventing war on Earth. You use diplomacy, establish rules of conduct, and operate with openness and cooperation. She said we need more detail than is included in the 1967 Outer Space Treaty, a United Nations effort signed by more than 100 nations that set ground rules for peaceful exploration of space, and we need to figure out if and how existing international law applies to space. It’s all easier said than done.

“The international part of it is the difficult part,” Dawson said. The US has recognized its vulnerabilities in space and is working to protect its own assets, but other countries are doing their own thing.

“I try to be hopeful, but I think the international part of it is the biggest challenge,” Dawson said.

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Also by Linda Dawson:

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Lawrence Krause talk, other events this week

An appearance by award-winning theoretical physicist and best-selling author Lawrence Krauss is the highlight of this week’s busy area astronomy events calendar.

Krauss, author of The Physics of Star Trek (Basic Books, 2007) and A Universe From Nothing (Atria Books, 2012), will speak at Town Hall Seattle at 7:30 p.m. Wednesday, April 12. He’ll talk about his new book, The Greatest Story Ever Told—So Far: Why Are We Here? (Atria Books, 2017). The book explores the furthest reaches of space and time and the natural forces that govern our existence. Krauss challenges us to re-envision ourselves and our place within the universe.

Tickets are $5 and are available online.

Yuri’s afternoon

Wednesday is the 56th anniversary of the date cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin became the first human to fly in orbit around the Earth. April 12 has since become known as “Yuri’s Night,” though many celebrations are sprinkled around the month. The Museum of Flight will observe Yuri’s Night on Saturday afternoon, April 15, at two o’clock. Professor Linda Dawson, author of the newly released The Politics and Perils of Space Exploration: Who Will Compete, Who Will Dominate? (Springer Praxis Books, 2017), will discuss her book about the “New Space” race and sign copies afterward.

Dawson, who served as Aerodynamics Officer for the Mission Control Center Ascent and Entry Flight Control Teams during the first space shuttle mission, is a senior lecturer in physical science and statistics at the University of Washington, Tacoma, and serves on a couple of Museum of flight committees.

Club events

The Boeing Employees Astronomical Society will meet at 6:30 p.m. Thursday, April 13 at the Boeing “Oxbow” recreation center. The program will feature NASA Solar System Ambassador Ron Hobbs, who will discuss the final months of the Cassini mission at Saturn. If you don’t mind a few spoilers, check out our recap of Hobbs’s talk on the subject given to the Seattle Astronomical Society in February. Non-Boeing employees are welcome, but must RSVP. Follow the link above for details.

The Tacoma Astronomical Society plans one of its public nights for 9 p.m. Saturday, April 15 at the Fort Steilacoom campus of Pierce College. The all-weather presentation will be about space rocks, asteroids, and comets. If the sky is clear, they’ll bring out the telescopes and see what’s up.

Planetaria

The Bellevue College planetarium will run a show about stars at 6 p.m. and again at 7 p.m. on Saturday, April 15. The shows are free, but reservations are strongly recommended as seating is limited. Visit the college website for reservation info and other details.

The Willard Smith Planetarium at Pacific Science Center offers a variety of shows every day. Their full schedule is on our calendar page. A new show about the skies of ancient China and another, geared to kids, about Chinese astronomy have been created in conjunction with the science center’s recently opened Terracotta Warriors exhibit. We hope to do a feature post about the shows in the coming weeks.

Search for meaning continues

There is a great menu of interesting talks on this week’s calendar, including three with astronomy themes at a weekend event at Seattle University.

Search for Meaning FestivalSeattle University’s annual Search for Meaning Festival will be held on the university campus all day Saturday, February 25. The festival is a community event dedicated to topics surrounding the human quest for meaning and the characteristics of an ethical and well-lived life. It draws more than 50 authors and artists who will give interactive presentations. Three of these sessions are on astronomy-related topics.

At 9 a.m. Father George Coyne, SJ, former director of the Vatican Observatory and author of Wayfarers in the Cosmos: The Human Quest for Meaning (Crossroad 2002), will discuss the history of the evolution of life in the cosmos. Coyne’s thesis is that this history may lead us to a deeper understanding of what many secular physicists say themselves about the cosmos: that a loving creator stands behind it.

At 10:45 a.m. Margot Lee Shetterly, author of the book Hidden Figures: The American Dream and the Untold Story of the Black Women Mathematicians Who Helped Win the Space Race (William Morrow, 2016), on which the current hit film is based, will give one of the keynote addresses at the festival. Shetterly will talk about race, gender, science, the history of technology, and much else. Reservations for Shetterly’s talk are sold out.

At 12:45 p.m. Marie Benedict, author of The Other Einstein (Sourcebooks Landmark, 2016), will explore the life of Mileva Maric, who was Albert Einstein’s first wife and a physicist herself, and the manner in which personal tragedy inspired Mileva’s possible role in the creation of Einstein’s “miracle year” theories.

Check our post from December previewing the festival, and look at the trailer video below. Tickets to the festival are $12.50 and are available online.

Siegel at Rose City

Author and astrophysicist Ethan Siegel will be the guest speaker at the monthly meeting of the Rose City Astronomers in Portland at 7:30 p.m. Monday, February 20. Siegel will talk about his book Beyond the Galaxy: How Humanity Looked Beyond Our Milky Way and Discovered the Entire Universe (World Scientific Publishing, 2015). He’ll examine the history of the expanding universe and detail, up until the present day, how cutting-edge science looks to determine, once and for all, exactly how the universe has been expanding for the entire history of the cosmos. Siegel is an informative and engaging speaker; check our recap of his talk from last year about gravitational wave astronomy.

AoT Seattle and an app for simulating the universe

AoT FebruaryAstronomy on Tap Seattle’s monthly get-together is set for 7 p.m. Wednesday, February 22 at Peddler Brewing Company in Ballard. Two guest speakers are planned. Dan Dixon, creator of Universe Sandbox² will give an introduction to the app, an accessible space simulator that allows you to ask fantastical what-if questions and see accurate and realistic results in real-time. It merges real-time gravity, climate, collision, and physical interactions to reveal the beauty of our universe and the fragility of our planet. University of Washington professor in astronomy and astrobiology Rory Barnes will talk about “Habitability of Planets in Complicated Systems.” It’s free, except for the beer.

TAS public night

Tacoma Astronomical SocietyThe Tacoma Astronomical Society plans one of its public nights for 7:30 p.m. Saturday, February 25 at the Fort Steilacoom campus of Pierce College. The indoor presentation will be about the zodiac. If the skies are clear they’ll set up the telescopes and take a look at what’s up.

Futures file

You can scout out future astronomy events on our calendar. We’ve recently added several events scheduled at the Museum of Flight, including:

Up in the sky

There will be an annular solar eclipse on Sunday, February 26, but you’ll have to be in South America or Africa to see it. This Week’s Sky at a Glance from Sky & Telescope magazine and The Sky This Week from Astronomy offer more observing highlights for the week.