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 in which each collision generates space debris that increases the likelihood of further collisions.[3] One implication is that the distribution of debris in orbit could render space activities and the use of satellites in specific orbital ranges difficult for many generations.[3]

Debris generation and destruction[edit]

Every satellite, space probe, and crewed mission has the potential to produce space debris. A cascading Kessler syndrome becomes more likely as satellites in orbit increase in number. As of 2014, there were about 2,000 commercial and government satellites orbiting the earth.[4] It is estimated that there are 600,000 pieces of space junk ranging from 1 cm to 10 cm, and on average one satellite is destroyed each year.[4][5]

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 atmospheric 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 re-enter, 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 troublesome because of the domino effect and feedback runaway wherein impacts between objects of sizable mass spall off debris from the force of the collision. The fragments can then hit other objects, producing 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 make prospects for long-term viability of satellites in low earth orbit extremely low.[6][7] However, even a catastrophic Kessler scenario at LEO would pose minimal risk for launches continuing past LEO, or satellites travelling at medium Earth orbit (MEO) or geosynchronous orbit (GEO). The catastrophic scenarios predict an increase in the number of collisions per year, as opposed to a physically impassable barrier to space exploration that occurs in higher orbits.[citation needed]

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.[8] 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 18 March 2002 to commit to moving to a graveyard orbit at the end of their operational life.[9] U.S. government regulations similarly require for a plan to dispose of satellites after the end of their mission; either through atmospheric re-entry, movement to a storage orbit or direct retrieval.[10]

A proposed energy-efficient means of deorbiting a spacecraft from MEO is to shift it to an orbit in an unstable resonance with the Sun or Moon that speeds up orbital decay.[11][12]

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.[13]

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—two catalogued objects can be expected to pass within about 200 meters of Envisat every year[14]—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.[14]

In fiction[edit]

  • In Peter F. Hamilton's 2001 novel Fallen Dragon, the residents of the planet Santa Chico deliberately set off a Kessler syndrome in order to "close the sky" from marauding spaceships, making further trips to or from the planet impossible.
  • The initial segment of the 2003 manga Planetes is centered around an orbital debris cleaning crew, whose entire purpose is reducing the Kessler risk.
  • The 2013 film Gravity features a Kessler syndrome catastrophe as the inciting incident of the story, when the Russians shoot down an old satellite.[15]
  • Neal Stephenson's 2015 novel Seveneves begins with the unexplained explosion of the Moon into seven large pieces, the subsequent creation of a cloud of debris by Kessler syndrome collisions, and the eventual bombardment of Earth's surface by lunar meteoroids.[16]
  • In Marc Cameron's 2018 novel Tom Clancy: Oath of Office, Iranian dissidents plot to shoot two Russian nuclear missiles into space to destroy an orbiting satellite which would then set off the Kessler Syndrome.
  • The 2019 video game Ace Combat 7: Skies Unknown features Erusea firing Anti-Satellite Missiles at Osean satellites, only for Osea to follow suit. This inevitably leads to Kessler Syndrome which plunges the continent of Usea into widespread conflict.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ "Scientist: Space weapons pose debris threat – CNN". 2002-05-03. Archived from the original on 2012-09-30. 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. ^ Carpineti, Alfredo (2016-05-15). "Space Debris Has Chipped One Of The ISS's Windows". I Fucking Love Science. Archived from the original on 2016-05-16. Retrieved 2016-05-16.
  6. ^ 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.
  7. ^ Joel R. Primack; Nancy Ellen Abrams. "Star Wars Forever? – A Cosmic Perspective" (PDF). the deliberate injection into LEO of large numbers of particles as a cheap but effective anti-satellite measure.
  8. ^ "FCC Enters Orbital Debris Debate". Archived from the original on 2008-05-06.
  9. ^ "FCC Enters Orbital Debris Debate". Archived from the original on 2009-07-24.
  10. ^ "US Government Orbital Debris Standard Practices" (PDF).
  11. ^ Witze, A. (2018-09-05). "The quest to conquer Earth's space junk problem". Nature. 561 (7721): 24–26. doi:10.1038/d41586-018-06170-1.
  12. ^ Daquin, J.; Rosengren, A. J.; Alessi, E. M.; Deleflie, F.; Valsecchi, G. B.; Rossi, A. (2016). "The dynamical structure of the MEO region: long-term stability, chaos, and transport". Celestial Mechanics and Dynamical Astronomy. 124 (4): 335–366. arXiv:1507.06170. doi:10.1007/s10569-015-9665-9.
  13. ^ "NASA Hopes Laser Broom Will Help Clean Up Space Debris". SpaceDaily. Retrieved 2011-03-17.
  14. ^ a b Gini, Andrea (25 April 2012). "Don Kessler on Envisat and the Kessler Syndrome". Space Safety Magazine. Retrieved 2012-05-09.
  15. ^ Sinha-Roy, Piya (July 20, 2013). "Gravity gets lift at Comic-Con as director Cuaron leaps into space". Reuters. Retrieved 2013-09-05.
  16. ^ Freeman, Daniel (18 May 2015). "Neal Stephenson's Seveneves – A Low-Spoiler "Science" Review". Berkeley Science Review. Retrieved 4 August 2015.

Further reading[edit]

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