An artist’s conception of how Planet Buttwipe looks to ET crews wondering whether or not to waste their time figuring out what makes the Anthropocene Epoch so great. (NASA image)
I suspect it’ll take a few million years at least before gravitational forces spin the metal junkyard we’ve erected around our planet into something like Saturn’s iconic rings. But we’re working on it. Right now, the Pentagon’s Global Surveillance Network is tracking 27,000 chunks of manmade orbital litter.
According to NASA, more than 85 percent of that crap —dead satellites, spent boosters, discharged mission dross, etc. – is softball-sized or larger. Factor in another half-million shards the size of pencil tips, plus an estimated hundred million artificial particles on the micrometer scale, and the odds of safe and event-free deployments in low-Earth orbit (LEO) are shrinking.
For more than 40 years, an uncertain but growing percentage of that waste has been intentionally discharged, the result of anti-satellite (ASAT) weapons experiments. Most recently, in November, Russia smashed an ASAT projectile into one of its defunct platforms, Cosmos 1408, which scattered another 1,500 pieces of mangled obsolescence into LEO. The debris from that collision forced the international crew of the ISS, which included two Russians, to make evasive maneuvers.
But Russia isn’t the only offender – the U.S., China and India have all successfully deployed ASATs to destroy orbiting targets. China appears to be the global garbage leader, spraying 40,000 pieces of scrap metal into orbital pathways when it smashed one of its old weather satellites in 2007.
Given the accelerating vulnerability of so many international assets to ASAT technology (not to mention susceptibility to ground-based hacking), it might come as a surprise that NATO didn’t formally recognize space as a “new operational domain” until 2019. That’s when the western military alliance agreed to adopt Space Policy guidelines for “enhancing its space domain awareness and common understanding of the space environment, including threats and risks.” After all, it might be good to know in advance if a Russian, Chinese or fill-in-the-blank ASAT attack on a NATO member’s satellites should legally bind treaty signatories to a collective retaliation.
Last year, after monitoring lively UFO discussions at the Scientific Coalition for UAP Studies conference in Huntsville, Alabama, a Defense Department employee was sufficiently impressed to contact SCU cofounder Rich Hoffman with a proposition. NATO’s Allied Command Transformation was sponsoring another round of Space Policy discussions. This one was in Italy, with the innocuous workshop title “Space – Exploring NATO’s Final Frontier.” Question: Would you be interested in attending and speaking?
Hoffman: “I not only said yes, but hell yes.”
One small problem. Addressing UAP/UFOs wasn’t on NATO’s program agenda. The Great Taboo would have to be slipped into a time block devoted to the economic impact of expanding the alliance’s sphere of interest into space. But it was pretty clear that at least a few stakeholders wanted to push NATO’s margins; after all, they invited Ryan Graves to speak in Italy as well.
The former F-18 Navy pilot has gone public about repeated near-miss UFO incidents during training exercises over the Atlantic, talking with the NY Times in 2019. As last year’s keynote speaker at the SCU conference, Graves decried the military’s hoarding of UFO data at the potential expense of commercial airline safety. Shortly thereafter, Graves joined the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics to co-chair its UAP Community of Interest research.
Now, two months after NATO’s mid-November two-day conference in Bologna, Hoffman offers a quick explainer about how the allies are fractured over the UFOs as a shared interest.
“Keep in mind that NATO is funded by every country,” Hoffman said, “and that only about 8 of the 30 members have actually paid their full bill. A lot of the other countries are struggling to pay the two percent (of their GDP on defense) that they’re required to pay. Right now, with Russia in Ukraine, and Ukraine wanting to join NATO, Article 5 (an attack on one is attack on all) is gonna get the most attention now.
“So you could have a situation where NATO is interested in UAP but other countries just aren’t on board and choose to ignore it. It’s not like in the United States, from the context of our government, saying they want to do something about it, then get everyone’s support to move forward.”
Hoffman and Graves were allotted a scant 10 minutes apiece to finesse their insights into the business end of the space domain, but there was a lot more spontaneity during the expansive Q&A sessions. An enterprise architect at Redstone Arsenal, Marshall Space Flight Center, Hoffman said the mission was to show how UFOs and economics intersect at the issue of flight safety. Because when it comes to flight — in the atmosphere or in space — both environments are confronting dangerously cluttered traffic lanes.
Of the more than roughly 8,200 satellites in orbit, barely half are active. 2022 hurled a record 180 payloads into the high ground, with SpaceX leading the pack at one launch every six days. Another 58,000 satellites are anticipated to be operational by 2030. Propelled by catastrophic visions of 15,000 mph-plus collisions in zero-gravity, the FCC recently ordered exhausted platforms to be programmed for atmospheric incineration within five years of decommissioning, versus the prevailing long slow death-glide of 25 years.
“That’s an insane amount of things going up,” said Hoffman. “And if you look at it in terms of trying to protect the planet, we don’t even know everything that’s being sent up there – the Russians definitely aren’t gonna tell you what they’re up to, or their intent. So consequently that’s a threat, in DoD terms.”
Most recently, Russia announced it had shot down “a UFO in the form of a ball” over its Rostov Oblast region on January 3. Was it a Ukrainian drone, mistaken identity, or fabricated BS designed monitor the interest level of U.S. intelligence? Putin’s media have issued no followups.
Anyhow, Hoffman’s challenge was trying to show NATO a path for rolling the phenomenon into its list of space-environment concerns. Picking up on Graves’ riff about how so many near-miss scenarios helped fuel the creation of the military’s All-domain Anomaly Resolution Office, Hoffman urged listeners not to make the mistake of dismissing UFOs as an atmospheric anomaly. He illustrated with the famous 1976 Tehran incident, in which two Iranian jet fighters briefly lost power while pursuing a UFO.
“If you look at that Tehran case, our DSP-1 satellite actually tracked the object coming in from out there before they tracked it coming over Tehran and the two F-4 encounters happened,” he said. “Then it came across the control tower and had electromagnetic effects not only with the two F-4s and their navigation and missile systems, but it also had an impact on the Mehrabad Airport.”
Given the remote chances that NATO might work UFOs into its priorities any time soon, Hoffman says he hopes he at least left audiences with ideas worth considering.
“At a minimum,” he said, “you can help the partnership of NATO and the United States by reporting your encounters, things you might see with your aircraft or other systems, and have that information put into an open-source database. Your ability to share what you’ve detected will give us a depiction of just how extensive this global phenomenon is. You need to get away from this being a U.S. problem, because it’s not. And before we can do anything, we need to understand the scope of what we’re looking at.”
Coincidentally, the prospects for international cooperation took another step forward last week when the tiny Republic of San Marino, population 34,000, voted to formally propose the establishment of a permanent UAP research arm at the United Nations. Located in northeast Italy, San Marino also volunteered to host a venue for ongoing multinational discussions and data-sharing.
Whether or not San Marino’s initiative will provoke the western alliance’s interest remains to be seen, but another NATO conference on its future in space is set for later this year. Either way, Hoffman says the nonprofit SCU and its eclectic roster of volunteer scientists is eager to assist with global studies:
“I proposed to the Supreme Allied Command Transition that, if they wanted to play a role in any sort of data collection, we would certainly be able, as an organization, to help shape that direction and make it a reality.”