JUL 15, 2015 09:48 AM PDT

Space Bullets Creating Ablation Cascade

It turns out, we've got a big problem circling above our heads. It's getting worse with each passing day, and if we don't do something about it soon, we may lose the ability to use space at all. The problem is orbital debris. The reason it's getting worse is something called the Kessler syndrome, or if you prefer the more technical and much scarier sounding term: "ablation cascade".

The thousands of pieces of space debris, and these are just the trackable ones!

Now, you may have heard of the problem of orbital debris before, and you may be thinking, ‘Okay, we've got some space junk floating around up there. We'll get to it eventually.' But here's the problem, well, the first part of the problem: it's not floating, it's rocketing. Every piece of orbital debris is traveling at about 17,000 miles per hour. Here's another part of the problem: things in orbit collide, the way two satellites did in 2009. These were both big, heavy objects. The derelict soviet Strela military communications satellite weighed 2,094 pounds, and the Iridium 33, part of a cell phone network of satellites, weighed 1,235 pounds. Oh, and since both objects were traveling at hyper velocities, along different orbits, their combined collision speed was around 44,000 miles per hour.



So, as you might imagine, when two big, heavy satellites hit one another going at these massive velocities, they're going to create a lot of debris. NASA estimates that as a result of just this one collision, approximately 1,000 pieces of debris larger than 10 centimeters were created. But there are also likely hundreds, possibly thousands of pieces of smaller debris. NASA doesn't know. It can't track debris that's this small.

But wait, it gets worse: debris clouds don't stay in one place. They keep orbiting at these faster-than-a-speeding-bullet speeds, and since they're all different sizes they don't all go at the same speed, or stay at the same altitude. And while all of this is happening the debris cloud is spreading out, a lot, eventually over hundreds, and then thousands of miles. Oh, and, by the way, this is all just from one collision. So far there have been eight ... that NASA knows of. Then, of course there's the 2007 Chinese anti-satellite missile test when they intentionally blew up one of their own satellites.

‘Okay,' you may be thinking, ‘so we got some little space pebbles floating around up there. What harm could they do?' Well, researchers have determined that a one inch piece of debris traveling at roughly 17,000 miles an hour, would have about the same effect as a browning 50 caliber round fired here on Earth. But here's the real kicker: collisions, or explosions, make debris. Each of the hundreds or thousands of pieces of debris can cause another collision, creating more hundreds or thousands of pieces of debris, which can cause more collisions, and so on, and so on, and so on. Starting to see the problem? The scenario used in the 2013 movie Gravity, where a debris cloud hits the International Space Station and destroys it? that's not just possible. It's likely, and, given enough time, inevitable. Also, keep in mind, GPS? cell phones? TV? shipping the food you eat? pretty much every aspect of our lives involves the use of satellites, and unless we do something to start cleaning up these bullets in space, they'll all be in the crosshairs.


(Source: Wikipedia)
About the Author
  • Andrew J. Dunlop lives and writes in a little town near Boston. He's interested in space, the Earth, and the way that humans and other species live on it.
You May Also Like
JUN 06, 2018
Space & Astronomy
JUN 06, 2018
New Horizons Wakes Up From Low-Power State to Prep for Upcoming KBO Encounter
NASA’s Pluto-visiting New Horizons spacecraft has finally woken up after being in a low power mode-like state since December 21st of last year. Citin...
JUN 25, 2018
Space & Astronomy
JUN 25, 2018
NASA Will Study Jupiter's Great Red Spot with the James Webb Space Telescope
Astronomers have been studying Jupiter’s Great Red Spot for decades, and it continues to captivate their attention even today. Several modern observa...
JUL 23, 2018
Space & Astronomy
JUL 23, 2018
SpaceX Sees Another Successful 'Block 5' Falcon 9 Rocket Launch
Over the weekend, SpaceX launched yet another of its iconic Falcon 9 rockets from Launch Complex 40 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida. Image C...
JUL 23, 2018
Space & Astronomy
JUL 23, 2018
Earth is Pretty Small Compared to Everything Else in Space
To you and I, the Earth might seem like a large place. But in astronomical terms, our planet is actually quite small. Comparatively, the gas giant planets...
AUG 20, 2018
Space & Astronomy
AUG 20, 2018
Martian Dust Storm Begins Clearing, Sparking Hope for the Opportunity Rover
Back in June, Mars became enveloped by a planet-wide dust storm. The dust from the storm blocked so much sunlight that NASA felt compelled to put its solar...
AUG 26, 2018
Space & Astronomy
AUG 26, 2018
NASA's OSIRIS-REx Spacecraft Snaps its First Picture of Bennu
NASA’s Origins, Spectral Interpretation, Resource Identification, Security-Regolith Explorer (OSIRIS-REx) mission is now one step closer to realizing...
Loading Comments...