Kessler syndrome

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Space debris populations seen from outside geosynchronous orbit (GEO). There are two primary debris fields, the ring of objects in GEO, and the cloud of objects in low earth orbit (LEO).

The Kessler syndrome (also called the Kessler effect,[1][2] collisional cascading or ablation cascade), proposed by the NASA scientist Donald J. Kessler in 1978, is a scenario in which the density of objects in low Earth orbit (LEO) is high enough that collisions between objects could cause a cascade—each collision generating space debris which increases the likelihood of further collisions.[3] One implication is that the distribution of debris in orbit could render space exploration, and even the use of satellites, unfeasible for many generations.[3]

Debris generation and destruction[edit]

Every satellite, space probe, and manned mission has the potential to create space debris. A cascading Kessler syndrome becomes more likely as satellites in orbit increase in number and old satellites become inoperative. As of 2014, there were about 2,000 commercial and government satellites orbiting the Earth.[4] It is estimated that there are 300,000 pieces of space junk ranging from 1cm to 25cm, and on average one satellite is destroyed each year. [4]

The most commonly used orbits for both manned and unmanned space vehicles are low Earth orbits, which cover an altitude range low enough for residual air drag to be sufficient to help keep the zone clear. Collisions that occur in this altitude range are also less of an issue because the directions into which the fragments fly and/or their lower specific energy often result in orbits intersecting with Earth or having perigee below this altitude.

Orbital decay is much slower at altitudes where atmospheric drag is insignificant. Slight atmospheric drag, lunar perturbation, and solar wind drag can gradually bring debris down to lower altitudes where fragments finally reenter, but this process can take millennia at very high altitudes.


Image made from models used to track debris in Earth orbit.

The Kessler syndrome is especially insidious because of the "domino effect" and "feedback runaway" wherein impacts between objects of sizable mass spalls off debris from the force of collision. The shrapnel can then hit other objects, creating even more space debris: if a large enough collision or explosion were to occur, such as between a space station and a defunct satellite, or as the result of hostile actions in space, then the resulting debris cascade could render low Earth orbit essentially impassable.[5][6]

Avoidance and reduction[edit]

Designers of a new vehicle or satellite are frequently required to demonstrate that it can be safely disposed of at the end of its life, for example by use of a controlled atmospheric reentry system or a boost into a graveyard orbit.[7] In order to obtain a license to provide telecommunications services in the United States, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) requires all geostationary satellites launched after March 18, 2002, to commit to moving to a graveyard orbit at the end of their operational life.[8] U.S. government regulations require a boost, \Delta{H}, of ~300 km.[9]

One technology proposed to help deal with fragments from 1 cm to 10 cm in size is the laser broom, a proposed multimegawatt land-based laser that could deorbit debris: the side of the debris hit by the laser would ablate and create a thrust that would change the eccentricity of the remains of the fragment until it would re-enter harmlessly.[10]

Potential trigger[edit]

The Envisat satellite is a large, inactive satellite with a mass of 8,211 kg (18,102 lb) that drifts at 785 km (488 mi), an altitude where the debris environment is the greatest—2 catalogued objects can be expected to pass within about 200 meters of Envisat every year[11]—and likely to increase. It could easily become a major debris contributor from a collision during the next 150 years that it will remain in orbit.[11]

Fictional and dramatic representations[edit]

The Japanese manga/anime Planetes revolves around a team of space debris collectors based in the debris craft Toy Box in the year 2075. A Kessler syndrome scenario is referenced directly when a "Space Defense Front" terrorist group attempts to ram a satellite into a space station, thus cutting off the world's economic powers from space-borne resources.

The 2012 scifi film Space Milkshake centers around a fictional space station whose crew are tasked with the sole job of cleaning up orbital debris to avoid an ablative cascade. An orbital debris collision sets the plot in motion.

The 2013 film Gravity features a Kessler syndrome catastrophe as the event which sets the plot in motion.[12]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ "Scientist: Space weapons pose debris threat – CNN". 2002-05-03. Retrieved 2011-03-17. 
  2. ^ "The Danger of Space Junk – 98.07". Retrieved 2011-03-17. 
  3. ^ a b Donald J. Kessler and Burton G. Cour-Palais (1978). "Collision Frequency of Artificial Satellites: The Creation of a Debris Belt". Journal of Geophysical Research 83: 2637–2646. Bibcode:1978JGR....83.2637K. doi:10.1029/JA083iA06p02637. 
  4. ^ a b "Lockheed Martin in space junk deal with Australian firm". BBC News. 28 August 2014. Retrieved 2014-08-28. 
  5. ^ Primack, Joel R. (2002). "Debris and Future Space Activities" (PDF). Physics Department, University of California,. With enough orbiting debris, pieces will begin to hit other pieces, setting off a chain reaction of destruction that will leave a lethal halo around the Earth. 
  6. ^ Joel R. Primack; Nancy Ellen Abrams. "Star Wars Forever? – A Cosmic Perspective". the deliberate injection into LEO of large numbers of particles as a cheap but effective anti-satellite measure. 
  7. ^ "FCC Enters Orbital Debris Debate". Archived from the original on 2008-05-06. 
  8. ^ "FCC Enters Orbital Debris Debate". 
  9. ^ "US Government Orbital Debris Standard Practices". 
  10. ^ "NASA Hopes Laser Broom Will Help Clean Up Space Debris". SpaceDaily. Retrieved 2011-03-17. 
  11. ^ a b "Don Kessler on Envisat and the Kessler Syndrome". Space Safety Magazine. 25 April 2012. Retrieved 2012-05-09.  |first1= missing |last1= in Authors list (help)
  12. ^ Sinha-Roy, Piya (July 20, 2013). "'Gravity' gets lift at Comic-Con as director Cuaron leaps into space". Reuters. Retrieved 2013-09-05. 

Further reading[edit]

  • An article in the July 2009 issue of Popular Mechanics by Glenn Harlan Reynolds discusses the Kessler syndrome in regards to the February, 2009 satellite collision and how international law may need to address the problem to help prevent future incidents: Reynolds, G. H. (2009, July). Collision course. Popular Mechanics, p. 50-52.
  • Documentary: Collision point: The race to clean up space (length: 22 minutes 28 seconds), included in the extra material on the Blu-ray Disc for Gravity (film).

External links[edit]