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June 30 2022 11:08 PM ˚
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Kessler Syndrome: An existential wave of doom across the horizon?

There are several thousands of satellites and debris orbiting the earth that are responsible for the most necessities of our daily lives. (Photo: European Space Agency)
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Picture this: it is 1958, you’re huddled around the black and white television set with your family, ready to witness humanity’s next generational leap since the industrial revolution. You’re watching Explorer 1, the first satellite of its kind, launched into space by the US. اضافة اعلان

As you watch the rocket take off with its payload, you admire the beautiful grey trails left behind by the blazing hunk of metal being propelled into space. While sitting in your living room, you realize that this launch changes the landscape of previously possible possibilities. 

You imagine a world of progress, innovation, and technological evolution within the forthcoming years, envisioning flying cars, skyscrapers, and the search for the extraterrestrial. What you most definitely did not think of, however, is just how troublesome it would be to maintain sustainable, scalable launches within the forthcoming decade. 

Exactly 20 years later, however a scientist, Donald Kessler, realized that scalability or how capable or not capable space is in handling the growing number of satellites or debris without collisions, would be a place of concern — and so was the chance of what he coined the “Kessler Syndrome”. 

Published in 1978, Donald Kessler, in his paper, outlined the inevitable dangers of thousands of satellites hovering over the earth, wherein it was inevitable that at some point a collision would occur that would set off other collisions that would set off others — and so on. 

This domino-like collision chain is, according to his work, bound to be incredibly destructive to infrastructure that would already exist in space — and would severely hamper any chances of getting future satellites out of orbit safely. This collision chain, or “Kessler’s Syndrome,” is something that few, to this day, have managed to even remotely innovate or solve. 

Space dodgeball

Space has little to absolutely no resistance due to a lack of an atmosphere, therefore objects that gain velocity can retain said velocity for extremely lengthy periods. Unless directly influenced by a gravitational force or another object, there is almost nothing that can slow, accelerate, or change the velocity or direction of the object. 

Satellites, on average, hover around 160–2,000km over the planet. While this may sound like quite a distance to an ordinary person, in the grand scheme of things, even at a distance of several light-years, planet earth still generates an influential gravitational on objects. 

That being said, objects, or in this case satellites that are within the earth’s nominal orbital range, are perpetually stuck in orbit, potentially being able to orbit around the earth for long periods of time before actually being able to make any kind of distance from it. As a result of these phenomena, here’s where we discover our first problem —what happens to space debris? 

Debris that hovers within the 600km range of the planet often manages to fall back into earth’s atmosphere, frequently burning up on the way through. This process usually takes a couple of years and is relatively safe; therefore, this debris is often not considered troublesome. 

However, once we start going further into space, we begin seeing a far more troubling scenario play out. At 800km, orbital debris decay (or the time it takes two objects to approach zero) is typically measured in decades; at 1,000km, you may be looking at centuries. 

As of the writing of this article, there are several 300 satellites in medium earth orbit (20,000km) and geostationary orbit (35,000km) to date. These are mostly responsible for communications, navigation, and everyone’s favorite fourth basic necessity for life, the internet. 

Debris doesn’t necessarily come from collisions, a nut, bolt, or even a tiny piece of metal that simply dislocates itself from the ship can be considered debris as well. In fact, the most basic of earth’s materials, plastic, can turn into an equivalent of a miniature missile provided that it’s given enough time to accelerate via the earth’s gravitational influence, in addition to its initial velocity from the satellite it comes from.

Therefore, all satellites and debris are now playing a game of orbital dodgeball, wherein the chances of them hitting each other are, technically, almost certainly improbable — but still possible. 

The cost of progress

Knowing just how dangerous space debris can be and its century-long orbital decay, let’s now dive into the deep rabbit hole that is modern-day’s tech giant’s aspirations to launch more satellites into space.

We have launched over 12,170 satellites into space; 7,630 are currently in orbit at varying orbits. Of those 7,630 there are over 3,000 inactive satellites, essentially space junk, hovering around the earth’s atmosphere cruising around at speeds of 27,500km per hour or more. 

Elon Musk, the modern-day layman’s hero of space exploration, has set forth a plan to put over 1,300 satellites into space to establish a satellite internet network that would enable even the most distanced individuals across the earth to gain access to the internet. 

Jeff Bezos has also set his sights on launching satellites into space to gain access to the developing industry of satellite internet, and there are currently over a dozen companies that are seeking to do the same. 

While the notion of internet access for all at an affordable rate throughout the world with a satellite dish sounds appealing — how far are can we push the envelope before Kessler’s model starts ringing the alarms? 

While many would argue it is essential to do so, the measure of sending out hundreds, if not thousands of satellites into orbit by these companies to simply provide a need that in theory can be provided through other means seems highly irrational when considering the long-term effects that this innovation may develop. 

Access to the internet, however, is just one side of the coin — countless telecommunication companies, government entities, and other stakeholders vested in the use of orbital bodies are continuously pushing Kessler’s model further and further into the red, wherein in the coming future, we may begin to genuinely have to worry about the aforementioned domino effect. 

The real problem 

Hypothetically, if the Kessler Syndrome becomes a reality and a chain of collisions to commence, the earth won’t exactly be bombarded with debris like in a sci-fi movie where the entire planet has fiery fail raining down on its residents. 

However, it will mean that hundreds of services that rely on satellite technologies will come to a complete standstill. 

Life without internet, telecommunications, or even basic GPS will become a reality. Launching further satellites into space will become extremely challenging, and space exploration may, in fact, be reasonably impacted as a result of the debris that will be left hovering thousands of kilometers over the earth. 

Kessler admitted that the chance of the collision is currently sitting at almost null percent back in 2009. The harsh reality is that ever since then, satellite launches have increased significantly, therefore increasing the total number of cosmic bodies making their rounds around the earth. 

And it appears that unless genuine exploration into the topic is performed and regulation is put into place, Kessler’s Syndrome won’t just be a hypothetical reality — but an inevitable time bomb that will eventually set humanity back into the dark ages. 

While the obvious solution at first glance may be to clean out space of such debris, not only is it highly costly but there is no rational way to determine what debris is potentially on its way to set off a collision chain and what debris can be left alone. Therefore, the only method to the madness is developing powerful enough systems that can measure trajectories of most, if not all, known space debris around the earth — and then mapping out their trajectories years ahead to predict what objects may pose a threat in the forthcoming future. 

But even that, in essence, is impossible. As mentioned, the earth’s gravitational pull extends hundreds of light-years, albeit at a significantly reduced strength. 

Considering that we have several planets in our solar system, all of which have their own gravitation fields that indirectly affect the trajectories of these objects, it becomes nearly impossible to accurately predict any kind of potential future. 

Perhaps, in the end, the only real way to prevent Kessler’s model from ever being realized is to simply limit the number of total space objects themselves. Perhaps tech enterprises must stop chasing the great and instead strive to do good. 

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