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Don’t ‘Dish’ the Space Junk!

Dr. Petre did not find the term “space junk” very flattering about the ROSAT satellite, but let’s face it: what else would you call something man made hurling from space into the atmosphere? One mans junk is another mans treasure — just don’t call it junk!

Twenty years ago, experts in Germany, the United States and the United Kingdom collaborated to build and launch the ROSAT satellite. These days, international collaboration in X-ray astronomy has become the norm, with the Japanese and European space agencies as major partners with NASA. Transcending political boundaries, decisions about what a satellite observes are based on scientific merit, not national origin.

NASA scientist Dr. Rob Petre (no relation to the Dick van Dyke character) helped decide the annual program of ROSAT observations. Each year, scientists would submit hundreds of proposals outlining their plans for the telescope, which were then ranked competitively. Only a small fraction were approved. For every scientist granted precious ROSAT observing time, the re-entry last weekend had to sting.

Dr. Petre was definitely chagrined to hear ROSAT referred to as “space junk” in news stories. “That was really depressing,” he said, “when it was such a huge scientific success.”

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