Kessler Syndrome

I read somewhere a while ago (most likely Universe Today) about a plug in for Google Earth that shows around 13,000 of the satellites in orbit around the Earth, dead and alive.

It’s really quite amazing exactly how many satellites are out there. More amazing that so many are actually no longer operational. It brings home a very real possiblity. A scenario called kessler syndrome.

Kessler syndrome, proposed by NASA’s Donald J Kessler is a situation where the Earth has so much debris in orbit that it renders space travel and the use of satellites essentially impossible for generations. It would take decades to, possibly, millenia for all the junk to clear from the skies.

All newer satellites tend to be put into low Earth orbit where they’ll eventually burn up in Earth’s atmosphere, but there’s a lot of debris still out there. A lot more since a certain Chinese missile test a few months ago (which increased orbital debris by over 20%). Essentially, the more junk is up there, the more chance there is of it smashing into things. Things like space shuttles.

A Kessler Syndrome is a scary scenario, because the more collisions between dead satellites, the more debris will be in orbit, increasing the chance of collisions and so on. The end result we don’t want is a catastrophic event known as an ablation cascade.

In an ablation cascade, one explosion causes an expanding shell of debris. This shockwave of junk punctures successive satellites, causing more high velocity debris (possibly further explosions as coolant tanks are punctured) until Earth is wrapped in a coccoon of pulverised metal shards.

Of course, this is an extreme scenario, but seemingly one we should be wary of. Especially if commercial space travel is going to kick off in the next 20 years or so.

In the meantime though, it’s really quite staggering. Humanity’s most expensive scrap heap. Strangely, almost beautiful as well… Almost like some kind of man made globular cluster.

About Invader Xan

Molecular astrophysicist, usually found writing frenziedly, staring at the sky, or drinking mojitos.
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6 Responses to Kessler Syndrome

  1. invaderxan says:

    Re: I like this , fascinating
    Hi Starr :)
    I’m glad you’re enjoying reading my posts!

  2. Anonymous says:

    I like this , fascinating
    Interesting post !! well said. I really like your blog !!
    found your name in a comment on Bad Astronomy . And checked out your site .
    Starr Astronomer of :
    http://astro-basics.blogspot.com/

  3. invaderxan says:

    Heh heh heh… :)

  4. ryttu3k says:

    Ooh, laser broom sounds good! No chance of anything sonic, though? *grin*

  5. invaderxan says:

    For the tiniest shards, there’s not much we can do with current technology, actually.
    For the larger ones, I’ve heard of a device called a laser broom. It sounds a bit Doctor Who, but it works by hitting debris with enough laser light to change its velocity. That way you could literally sweep space junk into a graveyard orbit out of everyone’s way, or into a low Earth orbit where it’ll fall back to the planet.
    I’m liking the idea of some kind of scoop too, though. Means you could recycle all the dead ones!

  6. ryttu3k says:

    Ooh, I read about that on… Bad Astronomy, I think? But yeah, it’s definitely bad for space travel! I’m kinda picturing spacecraft with a giant scoop out the front to pick up the trash on the way out… what CAN be done about it, other than a) somehow clearing the debris out or b) reinforcing everything that goes up there?

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