Earth's familiar space-age portrait a swirl of white and blue, oceans and continents shrouded by clouds - has been shattered.
As portrayed by the European Space Agency, the planet looks like a beehive, surrounded by an orbiting swarm of man-made satellites and debris.More than 7,100 man-made objects are now being tracked by the U.S. Space Command, which monitors everything bigger than a baseball that humans put in orbit, including Earth-satellite and interplanetary vehicles. Every two weeks the command publishes a box score.
The Dec. 7, 1988, score shows the Soviet Union maintaining its lead, with 1,053 satellites and 2,204 debris objects, followed by the United States, with 5l2 satellites and 2,569 debris objects. Trailing behind the two superpowers are the International Telecommunications Satellite Organization, with 35 satellites, and Japan with 33.
Twenty nations and three international organizations are currently orbiting communications, weather, research, military or spy satellites. The newest entry is Israel, which launched its first satellite last September.
The number of man-made objects has been doubling every decade but only about 5 percent, currently about 350, are active satellites.
The rest is space debris: "dead" payloads, expended rocket bodies and debris fragments. Most debris is orbiting within 600 miles of Earth, says Donald J. Kessler, a debris specialist at the National Aeronautics and Space Administration's Johnson Space Center.
The fastest-growing region, he says, is the geosynchronous, or geostationary, orbit 22,300 miles above the equator. At that altitude, a satellite's speed equals the Earth's rotation, making the satellite appear stationary in the sky. This is the prime spot for communications, cable-television and weather satellites.
Not only does all this space activity mean danger of collision - a collision in space can create 100,000 new fragments, a fleck of paint can gouge a pit in a space-shuttle windshield - but it also creates interference back on Earth.
At the Palomar Observatory in Southern California, where astronomers are mapping the entire northern sky, it is "very difficult to take a wide-field photograph without seeing traces of a satellite - a fine streak - across a plate," says the observatory's assistant director, Robert J. Brucato.
Partially funded by the National Geographic Society, the $1.5 million Palomar Sky Survey has divided the heavens into 894 photographic fields to produce a sky atlas of 2,682 photographic plates.
A clearly identifiable satellite trail does not automatically necessitate throwing away a plate, Brucato explains, but the potential for serious problems exists as satellites become more numerous or obtrusive.
At least a third of the observations made on one radio wavelength by radio telescopes in Canada, France and elsewhere have to be discarded because of interference from the Soviet Union's Global Navigation Satellite System, says astronomer Sidney van den Bergh of the Dominion Astrophysical Observatory in Canada.
If all 24 satellites in the Soviet navigation system are launched as scheduled by 1992, "all astronomical observations at that wavelength would be impossible," he says. The wavelength is used to study star formations.
Increased satellite interference is a constant threat because there are "no worldwide rules and regulations about what you can and can't send up," says astronomer van den Bergh. "It could be radioactive or advertising."
Astronomers object to "billboards" in the sky and to proposals for orbiting depositories of cremation ashes or orbiting decorative balloons, says Brucato. Such reflective satellites would interfere with astronomical observations by increasing the brightness of the night sky.
Pressure from outraged astronomers apparently succeeded in having the city of Paris abandon plans to celebrate the Eiffel Tower's 1989 centennial by launching an orbiting string of luminous balloons that would appear as large as the full moon - a brightly lit doughnut 500 miles above Earth.