Kessler Syndrome Explained Now: How Close Are We to Kessler Syndrome?
Space exploration is one of humanity’s most hopeful pursuits. However, there is a scenario, called the Kessler effect, that could put an end to all space exploration and significantly affect our daily lives.
Well, how to define Kessler syndrome? The Kessler theory suggests that the collision of even two large orbiting satellites would produce thousands or millions of fragments that would fly in all directions, striking other satellites and creating new fragments. Imagine a chain reaction in a nuclear charge extrapolated to the scale of an Earth orbit – that would be the Kessler theory. And there are far more satellites and debris in orbit now than there were in the 1980s. If this hypothetical scenario becomes a reality, near-space will become unusable for tens or even hundreds of years. In 1978, Donald J. Kessler (NASA scientist) suggested that a chain reaction of accumulation and collision of space debris would eventually make space flights, activities, and satellite usage impossible for generations to come.
He stated that the satellites and other objects we keep launching into Earth orbit will create a situation when the collisions will eventually cause a cascading effect. The debris in the space and shrapnel from one collision will make further collisions more likely. When the number of such events reaches a tipping point, the space debris will completely take over orbital space. After the Kessler syndrome is explained, we want to stress the danger that comes out of it.
Is Kessler Syndrome an Actual Threat?
After knowing what is Kessler syndrome, we can answer that this event is possible, and it can cause a big problem for humanity. There are thousands of micrometeoroids and artificial debris already orbiting the Earth. How great is the danger posed by even a tiny fragment flying at high speed? NASA estimates that a 1-centimeter piece of debris from a satellite or rocket traveling at 22,370 miles per hour can cause the same damage as a 551 lbs object on Earth traveling at nearly 200 miles per hour.
If to double the size of the fragment, this would have a power of 15 lbs in TNT equivalent. Now imagine millions of such objects flying at dizzying speeds in the Earth’s orbit and crashing into each other. The effects of Kessler syndrome will have tragic consequences for planets in the Solar system.
What Would Happen?
If this happens and a chain reaction of exploding space debris does occur, the orbital area will hardly become passable for any of the space programs. Travel, missions to Mars, and other expeditions would become much more difficult, but still possible.
If the worst predictions of the Kessler effect come true, all services that rely on satellites would suffer. Namely, key aspects of our modern life like GPS, television, military, and scientific research.
How Close Are We to Kessler Syndrome?
The problem of a possible catastrophe in the Earth’s orbit drew the attention of an expert named Chatham House. He published an article about the situation in general. The analysts suggested that a “war of all against all” could begin in space, which would leave humanity without satellites. The probability of catastrophic developments for the space industry is growing as more and more devices appear in orbit around the Earth.
Satellite constellations consisting of thousands of vehicles – Project Kuiper, Starlink, Guo Wang, OneWeb, and others like it – pose a particular danger.
What is the Kessler syndrome probability? Experts say that the Kessler effect is practically the inevitable future, and the only question is when exactly the chain reaction will start in orbit. For example, now there is space debris in Earth orbit with a total mass of more than 7 thousand tons.
This was reported by Roscosmos. “If you collect all the space debris in orbit around the Earth, it turns out to be more than seven thousand tons, the weight of a loaded train of more than 70 train cars,” the Russian state corporation said.
The daily automated system of warning about dangerous situations in near-Earth space receives from three to ten messages about approaching spacecraft with potentially dangerous objects. Monitoring stations for potentially hazardous objects in Earth orbit are located in different parts of the planet.
What Is the Solution to Kessler Syndrome?
As the saying goes, the formulation and understanding of the problem is already half the solution. The fact that Kessler syndrome is developing slowly means that humanity has a chance to cope with it. It will not be easy – the objects already in space will gradually generate more and more debris, and no one will agree to a moratorium on launching new satellites. But the problem is not unsolvable either – in recent years all sorts of space debris removal projects have appeared – from sails and tether systems to extravagant ideas like nets or recycling debris into fuel for garbage flights.
There are no standards and mandatory requirements yet, but we can hope that in the foreseeable future, spacecraft will start getting reliable systems that can take even broken satellites out of orbit. Defeating the Kessler syndrome will be one of the important tasks of the 21st century that humanity will have to solve if it does not want to remain without access to space.
And we, in turn, urge not to panic, saying that the implementation of the scenario described by Kessler will not affect us in the near future.