Sun, Mar 05, 2006 - Page 6 News List

Scientists blast proposed space station golf stunt

COSMIC FAIRWAY A golf club firm wants a Russian cosmonaut to drive a golf ball from the International Space Station, but scientists warn of the risks involved

AFP , PARIS

US astronaut Jeffrey Williams, right, and Russian cosmonaut Pavel Vinogradov are lifted out of water during emergency survival training in special suits at the Gagarin Cosmonauts Training Center in Star City near Moscow on Thursday.

PHOTO: AP

A publicity stunt in which a golf ball will be whacked into orbit from the International Space Station (ISS) has met a chilly reception from scientists, who say the scheme is risky and adds to the growing problem of space junk.

Russian cosmonaut Pavel Vinogradov is to take on the role of a celestial Tiger Woods under a deal between a Canadian golf club manufacturer and the cash-strapped Russian Space Agency (RSA).

In one of three space walks planned from the ISS over the next six months, Vinogradov will climb aboard a special platform and swing a special gold-plated six iron and seek to enter the record books for the longest-ever golf drive.

If all goes well -- and NASA, the prime agency in the building and running of the ISS, gives its approval -- his ball will orbit the Earth for about four years, traveling up to 3.36 billion kilometers before eventually burning up upon friction with the atmosphere.

"Every single record for distance in the golf industry will be shattered," says Element 21 Golf Co [E21], the Toronto firm behind the scheme.

Fitted with a small radio transmitter, the ball can be tracked by golf fans on their home computer, said the company.

Scientists, though, are less than gleeful.

In theory, it should be easy to hit the ball for a huge distance.

On the ISS, orbiting the Earth at a height of some 350km, gravity is negligible and friction is zero, which should make it a golfer's dream.

But, as experienced golfers will tell you, driving that little white ball with the right force and in the right direction is a lot harder than it seems, even on a terrestrial course.

The task is that much harder in a thick spacesuit, which leaves little room for a decent swing or flexing the joints.

The ball thus could quite easily be mis-hit and travel only a couple of meters, or be hooked or sliced and sent in the wrong direction.

As a result, it could accidentally land in the same orbital plane as the ISS: station and ball would both whizz around the planet on the same track at slightly different intervals in time.

And what that means is a remote risk of a collision, capable of damaging or even destroying the ISS, depending on the angle, velocity and site of impact.

"There's a lot of room in space, but orbital mechanics is a wonderful thing, and things tend to come back to where you launched them from," said Heiner Klinkrad, acting head of space debris at the European Space Agency (ESA).

"For the ISS, the most probable collision velocity in the worst-case scenario is somewhere at 10 to 11kph per second," Klinkrad said.

"This thing is certainly larger than a centimeter, which means it would certainly penetrate the shields of the space station if it hits at this speed," Klinkrad added.

Jean-Michel Contant, secretary general of the International Academy of Astronautics (IAA), a Paris-based forum on space research, suggested that Vinogradov's boots be strapped to the platform and that he make a few practice swings on a tethered ball before doing the big drive.

"If safety criteria are respected, this exercise could be useful as a teaching tool for children and students and be fun for the broad public," he said.

"But it holds out no scientific benefits ... and if the worst-case scenario happens, it won't be fun at all," he said.

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