Thursday, October 13, 2005

Space Reporting

BBC reports that the Chinese Shenzhou VI's orbit has decayed more than expected. Chinese media indicates the orbit will be fixed shortly. I hope all goes well for the Chinese (and, given the routine nature of such things, surely it will) but that is not why I posted on this article. Take a look at this passage, which purports to describe what has happened to the craft:
The "orbit maintenance operation" would take place early on Friday morning, said official news agency Xinhua.

Gravity has drawn Shenzhou VI too close to earth, the agency said.

Shenzhou VI, which has two astronauts on board, is in a low enough orbit to be affected by the Earth's gravitational pull.
Now, although you doubtless caught it the first time, read that final sentence again. At first I thought this was something that BBC culled from the Xinhua report, but that's clearly not the case. This line is the Beeb's explanation of how the craft could drift toward earth. It has been known since, ohhh Newton, that every object in our solar system, from the massive Sun to tiny Pluto (okay, Mercury -- Newton didn't know about Pluto), is affected by the Earth's gravitational pull. Satellites in relatively distant orbits remain in orbit for only one reason. Yep. The Earth's gravitational pull. Indeed, if an orbiting object were truly far enough out in orbit to be unaffected by the Earth's gravitational pull, the object wouldn't be in orbit.

Is it too much to ask that science reporters have a least a six-grader's understanding of the subject they cover? And if the reporter does know better, why in heaven's name would the simple concept of gravity be dumbed down, so to speak, for the consumption of BBC readers? Although one might argue that I've answered my own question, I think both options -- dumb reporters or dumbed-down text -- are equally useless.