How space junk and weapons may keep us trapped on Earth
Remember that old Atari video game called Asteroids? You’d fly around in a little space ship blasting big space rocks into smaller pieces, and pretty soon the screen would be filled with debris, spinning and colliding into everything – including your little space ship…game over!
In reality, the amount of junk caused by space weapons tests and random collisions that’s orbiting the earth is become dire.
Essential satellites we rely upon every day – and even the International Space Station – are at risk of being shredded by growing clouds of debris travelling faster than the speed of sound.
The Financial Times launched a fascinating website to alert its readers to the dangers posed to the growing number of commercial satellites from space weapons tests and debris. It was written by Peggy Hollinger in London and Sam Learner in New York.
According to the FT, there are roughly 5,000 operational satellites in orbit, some 4,000 of which are delivering services from low Earth orbit. A further 3,000 dead satellites are also circling the planet. Almost half of those working satellites were launched in the last three years. Over the next decade, that rate of growth will accelerate.
“We humans use an increasing level of technology that is only provided by space-based platforms,” says Moriba Jah, associate professor at The University of Texas and chief scientific adviser to space tracking startup Privateer. “Everything from the global internet, navigation, financial transactions and climate change monitoring, or looking at the war in Ukraine — without space we would still be in the dark ages.”
The Kessler Syndrome
The scourge of space junk threatens that future. In 1978, Nasa astrophysicist Donald J Kessler outlined a theory of what would happen if space traffic continues to grow and collisions occur. The debris created by those collisions would skitter off into the paths of other satellites, creating yet more debris.
Over time, Kessler argued, a chain reaction of cascading collisions could one day make low Earth orbit hard to access and even prevent manned spaceflight from leaving Earth: a phenomenon since labelled the “Kessler syndrome”.
A cluster of startups has emerged to help navigate this new reality, and perhaps begin the process of cleaning up low Earth orbit. But some experts believe the chain reaction has already begun.
“Even if you stop launching, modelling shows that the number of space objects will still grow because collisions are happening and producing fragments at a higher rate than those that decay,” says Holger Krag, in charge of space safety at the European Space Agency (ESA). “We have gone past the point of the Kessler syndrome.”
It’s not just satellites at risk, says Nasa administrator Bill Nelson. Space debris “is threatening our missions, even human missions. You can imagine on a spacewalk if some of that hit an astronaut’s . . . suit, it would punch a hole in it,” he says. “We have to worry about getting some of this space junk down.”
- See “Space industry: How space debris threatens modern life,” by Peggy Hollinger and Sam Learner published by the Financial Times on June 8, 2022
- Also: “Why Russia Tested Its Anti-Satellite Weapon” by Deganit Paikowsky published in FP on December 23, 2021
(Cover: Near-Earth Object Surveillance Satellite – NEOSSat – launched February 25, 2013 by Canada is sweeping the skies in search of satellites and space debris. Via Canadian Space Agency)