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Russian cosmonauts are hoping to hit a golf ball into Earth orbit from the International Space Station, setting a record for the longest drive ever made. If NASA gives the OK, the attempt will be made during one of three spacewalks planned for later this year, probably in September.
It’s all part of a commercial deal between the Russian space agency and Element 21 Golf Company of Canada. The shot would not be the first extra-terrestrial golf drive. That honor goes to Astronaut Alan Shepard who in 1971 ended a moonwalk by hitting two balls on the lunar surface for “miles and miles”.
The ball will be hit with a gold-plated club (a six iron) made of the same scandium alloy used to build the ISS. After being hit from a special platform aside the station the ball is expected to orbit the Earth for four years and travel millions of miles. Its progress will be tracked using global positioning transmitters as it gradually loses altitude through atmospheric drag.
The trick is to hit the ball squarely wearing a bulky spacesuit. Cosmonauts have already practiced for such a shot inside the station.
Some experts warn a mishap could cause catastrophic damage to the station. The ball needs to be hit out of the station’s orbital plane. If it should stay within that plane it might fall back onto the station or collide with it on a later orbit. The worst case scenario could be that the ball could impact at a speed of about 5.8 miles per second, the equivalent of a 6 ton truck hitting the station at 62 miles per hour. A more likely collision scenario is that the ball will strike the station at the same relative speed that it was struck, at most 30 meters per second.
The ISS orbits at about 400 kilometers above Earth and there are about 300 operational satellites now near the space station. The possibility does exist to strike one of these satellites, although the probability is quite low. Recently a space suit fitted with a radio transmitter was released from the station without effecting orbiting satellites. Low Earth orbit allows the atmosphere to clean things out of orbit in a relatively short time.
The larger question is, how far do we go in promoting stunts like this? While NASA can afford to run a program strictly on government funding, the Russians are strapped for cash and need to find outside sources of income in order to maintain a presence in space. The Russians are known for creating many deals like this including the sending tourists into space for a hefty fee. For it’s part, if the swing is approved, Element 21 plans to return the gold-plated club to Earth and contribute it to a charitable cause.