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Keep outer space beautiful

Unfortunately, it might be too late. According to Federal and private aerospace experts (and today's Times), the junk we've been rocketing into orbit around the Earth since the space age began may be reaching a critical mass, greatly increasing chances that a speeding piece of debris will "smash a large spacecraft into hundreds of pieces and start a chain reaction, a slow cascade of collisions that would expand for centuries, spreading chaos through the heavens."

What kind of debris? Not just dead satellites of old and rocket boosters from long-ago launches, but a growing cloud of bits and pieces left over from years of Soviet and U.S. anti-satellite weapons testing from 1968 to 1986. (Recently, China got into the act, blowing one of its old satellites into at least 647 detectable pieces, and sparking an international diplomatic crisis.) Click here for a scary full-motion version of the graphic above, which is a representation of all currently trackable items in orbit around Earth.

If nothing is done, a kind of orbital crisis might ensue that is known as the Kessler Syndrome, after a former NASA official who hypothesized the scenario -- a staple of science fiction -- in which the space around Earth becomes so riddled with junk that launchings are almost impossible. Vehicles that entered space would quickly be destroyed. Is there a solution -- some cosmic vacuum that could wipe the space around Earth clean and allow us a fresh start? Not quite. Proposals include "robots that install rocket engines to send dead spacecraft careering back into the atmosphere, or ground-based lasers that could be used to zap debris." (Both sound prohibitively expensive, and a little silly. And do we really want millions of tons of space junk raining down on us, anyway?)

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History
The Secret World War II History Hidden in London's Fences

In South London, the remains of the UK’s World War II history are visible in an unlikely place—one that you might pass by regularly and never take a second look at. In a significant number of housing estates, the fences around the perimeter are actually upcycled medical stretchers from the war, as the design podcast 99% Invisible reports.

During the Blitz of 1940 and 1941, the UK’s Air Raid Precautions department worked to protect civilians from the bombings. The organization built 60,000 steel stretchers to carry injured people during attacks. The metal structures were designed to be easy to disinfect in case of a gas attack, but that design ended up making them perfect for reuse after the war.

Many London housing developments at the time had to remove their fences so that the metal could be used in the war effort, and once the war was over, they were looking to replace them. The London County Council came up with a solution that would benefit everyone: They repurposed the excess stretchers that the city no longer needed into residential railings.

You can tell a stretcher railing from a regular fence because of the curves in the poles at the top and bottom of the fence. They’re hand-holds, designed to make it easier to carry it.

Unfortunately, decades of being exposed to the elements have left some of these historic artifacts in poor shape, and some housing estates have removed them due to high levels of degradation. The Stretcher Railing Society is currently working to preserve these heritage pieces of London infrastructure.

As of right now, though, there are plenty of stretchers you can still find on the streets. If you're in the London area, this handy Google map shows where you can find the historic fencing.

[h/t 99% Invisible]

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holidays
Custom-Design the Ugly Christmas Sweater of Your Dreams (or Nightmares)
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iStock

For those of you aspiring to be the worst dressed person at your family's holiday dinner, UglyChristmasSweater.com sells—you guessed it—ugly Christmas sweaters to seasonal revelers possessing a sense of irony. But the Michigan-based online retailer has elevated kitsch to new heights by offering a create-your-own-sweater tool on its website.

Simply visit the site's homepage, and click on the Sweater Customizer link. There, you'll be provided with a basic sweater template, which you can decorate with festive snowflakes, reindeer, and other designs in five different colors. If you're feeling really creative, you can even upload photos, logos, hand-drawn pictures, and/or text. After you approve and purchase a mock-up of the final design, you can purchase the final result (prices start at under $70). But you'd better act quickly: due to high demand, orders will take about two weeks plus shipping time to arrive.

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