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Publicity and Panic for Satellite Re-Entries
by Morris Jones
Sydney, Australia (SPX) Jan 31, 2012

It was fortunate that there was no over-reaction to the re-entry of Germany's Rosat satellite or Russia's ill-fated Fobos-Grunt mission. This writer believes that this was more due to the whimsy of journalists than any major changes in the media paradigm.

Space agencies struggle with the technical issues surrounding uncontrolled satellite re-entries. It's hard to predict when or where a bird will finally come down. Usually, the low risk of any damage arising to people or property generates a relaxed response to the problem.

This may be justified, but it's not always perceived this way by the general public. Falling satellites may not be a major threat to public safety, but the public relations to these incidents is often damaging in its own right.

Real incidents such as the 1979 fall of Skylab, and fictional incidents from movies, have attuned public attention to objects falling from space. Never mind that things fall back several times a week without incident.

The mass media, as well as social media, will continue to follow the re-entries of larger objects, and will often serve to fuel fears among readers. The inability of space agencies and governments to stop them, shield the Earth or even predict their landing sites adds to public frustrations.

The 2011 re-entry of NASA's Upper Atmosphere Research Satellite (UARS) was a prime example. Yes, it was a large satellite with the potential to do some damage if fragments fell in the wrong place. But the odds of this happening were low, and NASA knew it.

This didn't prevent a wave of media interest in the satellite, which was a surreal mixture of fear, confusion and amusement. Reportage on the story far outstripped the attention it deserved, and the danger it posed was sometimes exaggerated beyond reasonable bounds.

Space boffins and managers can cling to the solid technical facts before them, smile in the satisfaction that they have managed the situation fairly well, and sit contented. But the media does not always see it that way. Severe budget cutbacks have stripped newsrooms of technical reporters and the knowledge they could bring to the media.

Reportage on satellites often falls to semi-skilled journalists with no technical knowledge, and an appetite for sensationalism. Scientific literacy among the public is falling as fewer people study science at school. Space agencies must compensate for these challenges by taking better control of the dissemination of information during these scenarios.

It isn't enough to simply pump out a media release, say that the risk is low, and then retreat. Public relations and crisis management strategies must improve in the future. NASA is generally very good at managing media relations, but this author feels that they could have done more for the UARS re-entry. There could have been more information, more frequently updated, from headquarters.

This could have soothed public fears around the world. It may seem like an unfair criticism of an under-resourced NASA, but sadly, media management of the UARS re-entry made the space agency seem impotent and unresponsive.

It was fortunate that there was no over-reaction to the re-entry of Germany's Rosat satellite or Russia's ill-fated Fobos-Grunt mission. This writer believes that this was more due to the whimsy of journalists than any major changes in the media paradigm.

Both missions fell to Earth less than a year after the notorious UARS re-entry. The media was probably jaded with satellite stories, and deterred by the anti-climactic end of the UARS saga. In time, memories of these events will fade, and there will also be staff turnovers in newsrooms.

A new group of young and inexperienced journalists will be writing the headlines. The next big satellite re-entry will then have the potential to become another media crisis.

Governments are sensitive to public opinion and tend to react to it, even when public opinion is unrealistic. This could produce some nasty over-reactions to future space crises. Bad decisions could be made in response to panic, rather than realistic judgements. The Italian government certainly over-reacted to the UARS re-entry, and probably caused unnecessary worries to millions of Italians.

What else could happen? Real harm could be done by people acting recklessly in response to a perceived threat. The damage caused by poor reactions could be more serious than any potential risk posed by space debris.

The global spaceflight community isn't as popular with the general public as some of us probably think. There's a lot of indifference, and a large slice of hostility. In tough economic times, it will be harder to muster public support for space activities. Poor communications management of satellite re-entries is not only damaging in the short term.

It tarnishes the image of space agencies as providers of useful and necessary services. We can't afford to make any more enemies, and failure during a crisis is a good way to lose credibility quickly.

In the future, there could be more interest in actively controlling the fate of re-entering satellites. These techniques could include staging controlled re-entries with a satellite's own thrusters or the use of a small tugboat spacecraft. Some could even be destroyed with anti-satellite weapons. It will be technically useful to stage such controlled re-entries in some cases. Certain satellites could be menacing.

But it will also be likely that some interceptions will be made for political reasons. They will be staged to show that governments can control the situation, and to prevent public panic. The risk of damage may still be low, but voters will demand action.

This volatile interplay of technical limitations, media strategies and public opinion will evolve over the next few decades. It remains to be seen if the currently high level of satellite phobia will continue, or if the general public will grow indifferent to re-entry problems.

Whatever happens, space agencies need to work harder on addressing media relations and public perceptions of re-entry scenarios. The public are stakeholders in space and the agencies that fly there. They need to be served better.

Dr Morris Jones is an Australian space analyst and writer. Email morrisjonesNOSPAMhotmai.com. Replace NOSPAM with @ to send email.

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