THE KESSLER SYNDROME: For billions of years, the heavens surrounding Earth were clear, untouched by mankind. Then in 1957, Sputnik One was launched by Russia. It was Earth's first man-made satellite. For the next 55 years, over 4,500 space missions have launched and left behind millions of pieces of debris. Life on Earth grows more dependent on space each day whether we notice it or not.
Space exploration has given us the technological advances that make our lives easier, teach us more about our world and protect us from danger. And soon, with the advent of commercial space travel, space will become accessible to anyone. But what if you woke up tomorrow and your GPS couldn't give you directions? What if your television showed nothing but static?
What if there were no warnings for the next natural disaster? The growing halo of man-made debris encircling the earth not only threatens future space exploration and global communications, but potentially endangers us all. If mankind doesn't act soon, the natural resources of space will become dangerous, unusable, and we'll be helpless to stop it.
Collision Point: The Race to Clean up Space: It all began with a misconception. We once believed that space was so vast, that it would be unlikely that two objects could collide with one another in orbit. Leaving something behind in space seemed harmless. But then in 1978, one man realized the real danger, that the big sky wasn't so big after all. That man was Don Kessler, NASA's retired senior scientist for Orbital Debris Research.
Pre-1978, there was this "Big Sky Theory," that there's so much space and the only thing we need to worry about was meteroids. What about satellites in Earth orbit? When are they going to start colliding and when will that become a significant hazard? The hazard from the meteor environment had already been exceeded by the man-made environment. You can draw an analogy to climate change in the sense that it's a long-term problem. It will slowly continue to get worse.
Space debris is any object in orbit around Earth that serves no useful function and it can consists of rocket bodies that were used to place the object in orbit or it can be payloads that have quit functioning. Rather than putting things out of the way, we're just turning them off. To understand the problem of orbital debris, one must first understand orbits. Orbit is nothing more than the path an object takes when it falls through space. There are several orbit regions around the Earth.
Among them are the low Earth orbit, or LEO, medium Earth orbit, or MEO, and the geosynchronous orbit, or GEO. But how much debris has been left behind in these orbits? There have been over 4,500 satellites launched into space and about 1,000 of them are active. The Air Force can track objects that are about 5 to 10 centimeters or larger, and they are tracking, right now, over 20,000 objects that they know of, mostly all space junk. And just how dangerous is this junk?
Dead satellites and spent rocket stages left in low Earth orbit travel at 17,000 miles per hour. That's ten times faster than a rifle bullet. So if you were living in space, it's like living on a shooting range. In space, colliding with an object the size of a marble would have the energy equivalent to a hand grenade. As the size increases, so does the danger.
These lethal objects ranging from one centimeter to just under ten centimeters cannot be tracked reliably using ground-based radar. There are estimated to be more than 500,000 objects of this size in orbit. It is humbling how space reveals the fragility of man-made objects. But what happens if these collisions start to add up? The fear is that even just one incident could lead to a chain reaction known as . . . . .
The Kessler Syndrome. . . . .