The Kessler Syndrome
September 13, 2013 2:27 PM   Subscribe

After nearly 5000 launches, we've put a lot of objects in space. Amongst them are around half a million pieces of debris, generated by explosions, breakups and collisions (previously). With speeds of up to 15 km/s, even tiny fragments can cause major damage and the creation of further debris. The Kessler Syndrome describes a situation where the cascade of collisions creates an exponential increase in the amount of debris, leading to a potentially impassable artificial belt in LEO lasting for generations.

Coined in the early 80s in reference to Donald Kessler's original paper (PDF), the Kessler Syndrome has since shown up to "close the sky" in novels, as a constant threat for the cast of future "debris haulers" in Planetes, and even (sort of) in the world of Kerbals. In the real world however, the inoperative Envisat is currently one of the largest potential risks, and will remain in orbit for around 150 years if left to its own devices.
posted by lucidium (46 comments total) 25 users marked this as a favorite
 
I have a great idea to clean up all these debris. It could even turn a profit!

You'll be able to hear all about it in my upcoming TEDx talk.
posted by Aizkolari at 2:30 PM on September 13, 2013 [15 favorites]


Planetes was actually a pretty great exploration of this issue.
posted by whittaker at 2:32 PM on September 13, 2013 [5 favorites]


Well why should the gas giants have all the fun?
posted by hypersloth at 2:35 PM on September 13, 2013 [1 favorite]


half a million, not half a billion.
posted by lastobelus at 2:37 PM on September 13, 2013 [2 favorites]


SPACE JUNK
posted by The Whelk at 2:39 PM on September 13, 2013 [2 favorites]


...the inoperative Envisat is currently one of the largest potential risks...

*Briefly opens up EVA suit valve for my homie, Skylab*
posted by Brandon Blatcher at 2:41 PM on September 13, 2013 [1 favorite]


half a million, not half a billion.
Whoops, I must have gotten a bit excited. Thanks, I've contacted the mods.

posted by lucidium at 2:44 PM on September 13, 2013


[Fixed decimal place error, carry on. ]
posted by restless_nomad (staff) at 2:44 PM on September 13, 2013 [1 favorite]


So it's China's fault. That sounds right.

It's notable to layperson-me that all three of the plans that "hold real promise" operate by dragging junk out of orbit, and none of them seem to deal with the eventuality that some pieces may survive reentry. Also, the WIRED article deals briefly with cost and paying for the expense, but doesn't discuss the possibility that we basically suspend NASA's space operations to do this janitorial work, and then the status quo becomes that other nations operate cavalierly and we're the cleanup crew.

The Kessler paper is interesting, at least as much of it as I can understand. I do understand the last sentence. "Delay in implementation of these methods reduces their effectiveness."
posted by cribcage at 2:48 PM on September 13, 2013


Apropos: the upcoming film "Gravity."
posted by CheeseDigestsAll at 2:51 PM on September 13, 2013 [6 favorites]


If you want to keep track of everything up there, NASA has you covered.
J-Track requires Java, though. Be brave.
posted by Thorzdad at 2:56 PM on September 13, 2013


It's notable to layperson-me that all three of the plans that "hold real promise" operate by dragging junk out of orbit, and none of them seem to deal with the eventuality that some pieces may survive reentry

Well, without spending a huge amount of energy I think your only options are to drag it out of orbit, or to break it into smaller pieces. And if we don't do anything, both of those things will happen on their own, except slower than we're putting more stuff into orbit. But it may be possible to ensure that stuff lands somewhere remote, by dragging it out of the right part of its orbit.
posted by aubilenon at 2:57 PM on September 13, 2013


Is it possible to collect and then recycle or scavenge some of the pieces, or are they too radiated for such a task?
posted by gucci mane at 2:59 PM on September 13, 2013


I remember seeing a talk several years ago by Robert Forward on his tether idea for slowing satellites down, though that still doesn't solve the problem of what happens if they don't burn up on the way back down.

(He also had great ideas about skyhooks and throwing things across the solar system with tethers, I think they show up as a plot point in Camelot 30K.)
posted by fifteen schnitzengruben is my limit at 3:12 PM on September 13, 2013 [2 favorites]


Is it possible to collect and then recycle or scavenge some of the pieces, or are they too radiated for such a task?

I think the biggest problem with this is that it takes a bunch of energy to change from one orbit to another. That's why the cheapest proposal involves slowing things down by dragging them against the magnetosphere. That's why it's not so practical to just wad all the stuff up into a single katamari that is easy to track/avoid. As for recycling, I don't think we really have the capability for much orbital manufacturing yet. Though maybe this could help get started - one of the big costs is getting the raw materials up there.
posted by aubilenon at 3:14 PM on September 13, 2013 [2 favorites]


Robots will save us.
posted by planetesimal at 3:28 PM on September 13, 2013 [2 favorites]


The quantity of material isn't that great overall. The space junk that's currently up there would probably fit into a single landfill. The problem is that it's highly dispersed and travelling at tremendous velocities. It's kind of like collecting speeding bullets or the tumbling rocks of a landslide. But it is physically possible to locate most of the junk and send it into the atmosphere to burn up. The Wired article shows that there's some good ideas out there on how to deal with this.

When you get right down to it, this is a money vs. safety problem. At the moment, no government or large organization thinks it's dangerous enough out there in LEO to commit real money towards fixing things. I hope they're right.
posted by Kevin Street at 3:33 PM on September 13, 2013 [1 favorite]


though that still doesn't solve the problem of what happens if they don't burn up on the way back down.

I know what happens. They crash into the ocean.
posted by IvoShandor at 3:40 PM on September 13, 2013 [1 favorite]


Once upon a time, there was a junk man with a dream...
posted by localroger at 3:45 PM on September 13, 2013 [4 favorites]


Worst offender: Project West Ford (1961-1963). The US government launched 480 000 000 copper needles into medium earth orbit in an attempt to create an artificial ionosphere. Complaints from the British and Soviets were part of what motivated the Outer Space Treaty.
posted by justsomebodythatyouusedtoknow at 3:47 PM on September 13, 2013 [8 favorites]


Yeah, this is the cinematic device in Alfonso Cuaron's Gravity. The kinetic energy from the initial impact doesn't just disappear -- imagine an orbiting satellite, smashed into pieces, now a half a million sharp fragments orbiting the Earth, smashing into more satellites.

It's pretty damn scary stuff.
posted by tksh at 3:52 PM on September 13, 2013


The ESA link does mention technology has been developed that shields (to a certain extent) satellities, as well as the ISA itself:

Protection is achieved through Whipple shields with aluminium and Nextel-Kevlar bumper layers.


There are over 100 shield configurations on the International Space Station alone,[7] with higher risk areas having better shielding.
posted by KokuRyu at 3:53 PM on September 13, 2013


Orbiting earth is so 2012. We're interstellar now.
posted by yoga at 3:55 PM on September 13, 2013


Worst offender: Project West Ford (1961-1963). The US government launched 480 000 000 copper needles into medium earth orbit in an attempt to create an artificial ionosphere. Complaints from the British and Soviets were part of what motivated the Outer Space Treaty.
posted by justsomebodythatyouusedtoknow at 11:47 PM on September 13 [+] [!]


You could probably create a pretty good alternate history story with this as your starting point, where the global communications revolution never happened because the USA would just not stop firing billions of needles into space
posted by dng at 4:07 PM on September 13, 2013 [7 favorites]


Let's just build nanorobots that eat the junk and reproduce more nanorobots and then they just glob together and turn into a second moon that's made of grey goo and that we must always keep away from the Earth.
posted by mccarty.tim at 4:13 PM on September 13, 2013 [1 favorite]


That's why it's not so practical to just wad all the stuff up into a single katamari that is easy to track/avoid.

stupid drunk king of all cosmos
posted by elizardbits at 4:30 PM on September 13, 2013 [1 favorite]


Isn't there a Futurama episode in which the Professor solves this problem once and for all by helping Mom knit a giant moon scarf with the 480M needles, and the robots return all of humanity's DNA?
posted by sneebler at 4:39 PM on September 13, 2013


Sounds like a job for The Quark!
posted by octothorpe at 4:55 PM on September 13, 2013 [2 favorites]


PLANETES IS SO GOOD EVERYBODY SHOULD WATCH PLANETES.

EVERYBODY SHOULD WATCH PLANETES.
posted by Sokka shot first at 5:03 PM on September 13, 2013 [3 favorites]


Solved this when I was in secondary school.

Space based mirrors.

I also solved time travel. (It involves flying around the sun at the speed of light.)
posted by popcassady at 5:08 PM on September 13, 2013


"Sir Isaac Newton is the deadliest son of a bitch in space."
posted by Freen at 5:28 PM on September 13, 2013 [3 favorites]


In all seriousness, though, I've always thought that this could be reasonably well solved by a fairly accurate laser system. You track the orbits of flying things, shoot a reasonably high powered laser at it which alters the velocity/vector of the spacejunk, deflecting it out of orbit.

Also, I just want this thing to exist, because it would be awesome.
posted by Freen at 5:32 PM on September 13, 2013 [2 favorites]


How high is the apogee of an ICBM's flightpath? I wonder if anyone's explored, or maybe deployed, a satellite based shrapnel/fragmentation weapon as a more effective alternative to ground based ABMs.
posted by ceribus peribus at 5:43 PM on September 13, 2013


You could probably create a pretty good alternate history story with this as your starting point, where the global communications revolution never happened because the USA would just not stop firing billions of needles into space

This is only an alternate history because they have changed the target to space.
posted by srboisvert at 7:06 PM on September 13, 2013


Ah, the Great Pacific Garbage Patch in the sky.

Mankind, is there nowhere that you can't crap up?
posted by BlueHorse at 8:26 PM on September 13, 2013 [1 favorite]


How high is the apogee of an ICBM's flightpath? I wonder if anyone's explored, or maybe deployed, a satellite based shrapnel/fragmentation weapon as a more effective alternative to ground based ABMs.

I might be wrong but I don't believe that ICBMs go nearly high enough for that to be effective. I don't THINK they get high enough to be considered the altitude of a low earth orbit, so that rules out a lingering shrapnel cloud or a satellite close enough to disperse one.
posted by Stunt at 9:12 PM on September 13, 2013


BlueHorse: "Mankind, is there nowhere that you can't crap up?"

Perhaps the best way to measure the progress of a civilization is where all have they crapped on. :)
posted by TheLittlePrince at 9:36 PM on September 13, 2013 [1 favorite]


Earth: the Milky Way's irritable bowel.
posted by Redfield at 9:48 PM on September 13, 2013 [1 favorite]


How high is the apogee of an ICBM's flightpath? I wonder if anyone's explored, or maybe deployed, a satellite based shrapnel/fragmentation weapon as a more effective alternative to ground based ABMs.

contra what Stunt says, ICBMs can actually (depending) go well above the orbit of Hubble -- 500-1000 miles apogee. Peacekeepers had an apogee of about 1000km (600mi), for example. It's pure physics and it's all about the parabola.

As to the second, see Brilliant Pebbles (part of SDI aka Star Wars). One private proposal for kinetic energy weapons was High Frontier. (If you don't need the stentorian narration to give you context, you can skip the first 3 minutes.) In any case, there isn't much work on this lately because of the success of SALT and START and other detente-related diplomacy; we're not on high alert anymore. And there was that thing where it was so expensive and untested (untestable, even) that it may just have been a strategic bluff in the end. Stay for the coverage of the Soviet space program, and try to imagine these Cold Warriors having their minds blown by the present day cross-training that happens with the ISS program....
posted by dhartung at 12:43 AM on September 14, 2013 [1 favorite]


Sokka shot first: "PLANETES IS SO GOOD EVERYBODY SHOULD WATCH PLANETES.

EVERYBODY SHOULD WATCH PLANETES.
"

Looks like we've got another elizardbits syndrome infection here. Not even sure what to prescribe for treatment...
posted by Samizdata at 4:13 AM on September 14, 2013


I might be wrong but I don't believe that ICBMs go nearly high enough for that to be effective.

Repurposed ICBM's are regularly used to launch actual satellites.
posted by localroger at 7:35 AM on September 14, 2013


On the related topic of the simple dangers of kinetic energy and space based objects: I recall a sci fi book (something by Harry Harrison?) where the anti government rebels have space based foundries and cast lots and lots of iron spheres in zero gravity (since the molten material forms spheres due to surface tension) and then sequentially launches them in huge space filling arrays, to block and harm incoming weaponry and ships. In the age of Star Wars movies and g.i.joe lasers and related pewpew, this simple notion of walls of kinetic energy fanning out into space with one simple imperative was pretty mindblowing.

(I may not have all the details right, I haven't read the book in probably 25 years...)
posted by hearthpig at 8:33 AM on September 14, 2013


Sounds similar to Heinlein's "The Moon is a Harsh Mistress" with its plucky libertarian lunar colonists fighting off the superior Earth forces with the threat of dropping massive rocks down the gravity well...
posted by RedOrGreen at 10:41 AM on September 14, 2013


Everyone really should watch Planetes, it is great. There's a commentary track I keep meaning to get around to too.

> I've always thought that this could be reasonably well solved by a fairly accurate laser system.

I think the laser broom idea is basically this. The sky is just so big though, we'd need quite a lot of them to have much of an effect.
posted by lucidium at 2:31 PM on September 14, 2013


dhartung, maybe we could get the Russians to pull their Fractional Orbital Bombardment System plans out of the drawer and rejig them for clean up duty.
posted by Legs11 at 5:37 PM on September 14, 2013


Apropos: the upcoming film "Gravity."

Astronaut gave 'Gravity' advice to Sandra Bullock from space
posted by homunculus at 4:27 PM on September 15, 2013


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