The Outer Space Treaty, which has been signed and ratified by over a hundred countries, declares that space should be a peaceful domain, free of weapons and violence. There are numerous reasons for this however the most critical of these is avoiding the horrendous plague that is Kessler syndrome, the point at which our near earth orbits are so littered with space junk that launching anything becomes next to impossible. At the same time however the lack of an overt weapons capability in space leads to all sorts of whacky theories about military operations in space, fuelled by the lack of public data on classified missions. The latest of which is the mysterious Kosmos-2499 satellite which some are theorizing is Russia’s latest anti-satellite weapon.
Kosmos-2499 attracted the attention of numerous conspiracy theorists due to it’s semi-mysterious launch. Quite often classified payloads are launched alongside regular ones in order to hide their true nature and this was the case with Kosmos-2499, launching with 3 other communications satellites (Kosmos-2496~2498). It was initially tracked as space debris since the official launch manifest only listed 3 payloads, however shortly after Roscosmos confirmed that 4 satellites were launched on that particular rocket. This makes it an interesting, although not particularly unusual, launch but its behaviour following launch is what really got the crazies whipped up.
It changed it’s orbit.
Satellites don’t typically change their orbit very much so when one does it often becomes a target of interest for stargazers. The X-37B is probably the most notable example of a satellite that was able to do this which was also a military craft although it’s orbit meant that, should it have any anti-satellite capabilities, it wouldn’t have the opportunity to use them. Kosmos-2499 is in a similar position however it was in a position to rendezvous with 2 pieces of space debris, namely the remnants of a previous launch vehicle and it’s own booster. This has then led to a flurry of speculation that Kosmos-2499 has satellite-killing capabilities ranging from things like a pellet gun to grappling arms that can detach solar panels. All things considered I think that’s a pretty unlikely scenario and the satellite’s purpose is likely a lot more mundane.
The other satellites launched alongside Kosmos-2499 were pretty small in stature, coming in at about 250kg each. It’s then highly likely that Kosmos-2499 doesn’t exceed this by much and so the capabilities that they can integrate into it a pretty limited. Also when you consider that it’s likely carrying with it a ton of propellant in order to complete these orbital transitions, including the approaches, then you’re even further limited in what kind of payload you can bring along for the ride. Most likely then Kosmos-2499 is a platform for Russia to test close approaches to other objects on orbit (I’d hazard a guess in an automated fashion) with a view to integrate such technology into future projects.
Whilst I sometimes enjoy letting the conspiracy nut part of my brain run amok on these things the truth of the matter is usually far more mundane than we’d think it to be. Doing things in space is awfully difficult and building in radical capabilities like the ones people are talking about really isn’t that feasible, or even sensible. Indeed the best counters to a military presence in space are most often ground based things that can be done far cheaper and with a lot less hassle than trying to create some kind of satellite killing space robot. Kosmos-2499 might be a bit mysterious but I doubt it’s purpose is that exotic.
Earth is constantly being bombarded with all sorts of things from space. The sun constantly smashes us with solar winds and radiation, asteroids are constantly making their fiery descents and every so often we’ll have one of our own bits of equipment come back down once its reached the end of its life (or sometimes, sooner). Thankfully our atmosphere does a pretty good job of breaking these things up before they reach the ground and most of the time debris from space lands in an unpopulated area, causing little to no harm. Still there’s evidence littering our planet that tells us that large objects from space make their way down to the surface, often with very deadly consequences.
Probably the most famous piece of evidence to support this, even though people don’t usually know it’s name, is the Chicxulub crater on the Yucatan peninsula. This is the crater that is currently believed to be responsible for the mass extinction event that happened approximately 65 million years ago, the one that wiped out the dinosaurs. The impactor, a fancy name for the asteroid that made that giant crater, was estimated to be about 10KM in diameter. The collision has been estimated to have a total energy output of something like 96 teratons of TNT, 2 million times more powerful that the largest nuclear weapon ever detonated. With that kind of power being unleashed it’s then very plausible that it was responsible for the extinction of many species.
The most recent example we have of something like this, although many orders of magnitude less severe, is the Tunguska event which happened in Russia back in 1908. Whilst not technically an impact from an asteroid (or comet, possibly), it is believed that the Tunguska asteroid exploded about 5~10KM above the surface, it still managed to level an area of over 2,000 square kilometres. That’s still powerful enough to take out a major metropolitan area however, so you’d hope that we’d have some strategies for dealing with potential events like this.
Turns out, we do.
Now many people would say “Why wouldn’t you just nuke the bastard” figuring that our most powerful weapon would be more than enough to vaporize a potential threat before it could materialize. The thing is though whilst nuclear weapons are immensely powerful they derive much of their power from the blast wave that they create upon detonation. In space however there’s nothing for them to create a blast wave with so much of the nuke’s devastating power is lost, leaving just the thermal radiation to do its work. Depending on the type of asteroid¹ it will either make the problem worse or simply do nothing at all.
The better option is something called a Gravity Tug, a specially designed spacecraft launched well in advance of the potential impact event to steer the asteroid off course. In essence they’re a simple idea the spacecraft simply approaches the asteroid and then stays next to it, using ion thrusters to keep a set distance between them. Whilst the gravitational effect of the spacecraft on the asteroid is minuscule over time it adds up to be enough to steer the asteroid away from its crash course with earth. Indeed this exact idea is being proposed to deflect the potential impactor Apophsis who’s got a small chance of hitting earth in 2036. Of course this only works for asteroids we know about but our tracking is good enough now that it’s quite hard for a potential disaster causing asteroid to slip through unnoticed.
When it comes down to it having an asteroid cause significant damage is a distinctly rare event with our first line of defence (our atmosphere) doing a pretty good job of breaking up would be impactors. Still it’s good to know that despite the vanishingly small possibility of such a thing happening we’re still prepared for it, even if it means having to launch something years in advance. Maybe we’ll eventually be able to modify that technology to be able to capture asteroids in our orbit so we could utilize them as bases for further operations in space. I’m not holding my breath for that though, but it’s a nice fantasy to have none the less.
¹There are 3 main types of asteroid. The first is basically solid rock compressed together, so the asteroid is one solid object. The second is a collection of rubble that’s held together by the tenuous gravity between all the small fragments. The last are iron asteroids which are solid lumps of metal, which are the really scary ones.
There’s something to said for the longevity of the mouse and keyboard as the primary input devices for computers. Although we’ve come a long way in terms of alternatives you’d still be hard pressed to use those alternatives as full on replacements, save for a few niche applications such as graphic design. Still that hasn’t stopped the input innovators from trying and we’ve had many different devices and schemes thrown at us. In the end however they all meet the same fate: the mouse and keyboard just plain work for their purpose and none of them have really managed to take over.
Now I’m a bit of an input fanatic having churned through nearly every imaginable input device over the past few years and even buildinga couple of my own. Still on my desk at home you’ll find a mouse and keyboard just like everybody else. The reason? Simplicity. Nothing else really comes close to making me as functional as I can possibly be than my keyboard and mouse. I might include the microphone on my headset as well but apart from chatting on Ventrilo I couldn’t really say I use it as a primary interface for my computer. No out of all the alternatives I’ve tried nothing really fits as well as the old K and M but it seems like some companies think otherwise.
A couple days ago saw Apple revamp some old products whilst launching a couple new ones. Amongst the refresh of their iMac and MacPro line there was a curiosity that caught everyone’s eye and I’m not talking about the Apple Battery Charger. No the apple of everyone’s eye was the Magic Trackpad, a large multitouch bluetooth device that some have been saying is a mouse killer. Whilst I can appreciate the idea that any kind of device that Apple releases will garner this kind of attention I can’t help but think that calling it a mouse killer is a bit premature at the very least and, more likely, completely wrong. Sure it’s a nice looking piece of kit and I’m sure it will find a home with many people but if you think the computer of the future will come equipped with something similar I’d probably rethink your position.
You see about 15 years ago I actually had something quite similar to this, it was a trackpad that plugged into the PS/2 port that emulated a mouse. Now it wasn’t as large nor did it have multi-touch, but then again this was quite a while ago. It was functional enough that I could have used it as a direct replacement for my mouse at the time. You might be wondering what a 10 year old was doing with something like that, well it was given to me by my dad. He’d bought it thinking it would be a good replacement for his mouse but after a day or so of trying to get used to it he didn’t like it and gave it to me to tinker with. I put up with it for about as long as he did with the pad finally ending up in the computer parts pile.
For us mere mortals the mouse is actually quite a refined and elegant input device. The shape conforms to the natural at rest shape of our hands and minimal effort is required to move the cursor on the screen. The track pad however with much more limited tracking area and lack of sensitivity made both normal and precision work quite tedious. Additionally, and I know this will be squarely in the “don’t care” area for most people, gamers will tell you that anything bar a mouse and keyboard for gaming will instantly put you at a disadvantage save for something like a flight or racing sim. If you get one of these trackpads you’ll find yourself trying to pick it up every so often as you try to scroll across the screen unless it happens to be the first input device you’ve ever used.
Taking a step back from Apple’s offering for a second you’d notice that they aren’t the first ones to release a multi-touch trackpad either. Whilst most of the devices aren’t as slick looking as Apple’s device they certaintly have been around for quite a while yet you don’t see them on every computing device, not even all laptops. There’s also the integration to consider as whilst they might have integrated the gestures into their OSX line of products but unfortunately that won’t translate across to their competitors. You could argue that’s not Apple’s intent but if you’re going to call this thing a mouse killer you’d better start thinking about how that product is going to work cross platform, or it isn’t killing anything (apart from your wallet).
All this being said I still think it’s a rather cool looking piece of kit and I can see it as a viable alternative to a mouse for those who want to shell out for it. However if your needs extend past the usual email/web requirement or if you don’t run OSX then there’s no real need for you to rush out and buy this latest “innovation” from Apple, save for the fact that you can’t contain your rabid fanboyism for all things Apple. In my eyes this should have gotten just about as much press as Apple’s new battery charger (which is actually not bad) but of course anything that they do in the multi-touch space will ultimately be trumped up as the next revolution in computing. Of course no one will remember this when the mouse isn’t killed and is still here for decades to come, but I’ll let that one go for now.