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
JUL 31, 2018
Space & Astronomy
JUL 31, 2018
Underground Lake of Briny Water Detected on Mars
There’s seemingly endless evidence that water once flowed on the Martian surface, and in addition to that, many theories exist concerning the presenc...
AUG 15, 2018
Space & Astronomy
AUG 15, 2018
This Hot Exoplanet's Atmosphere Contains Gaseous Atomic Iron and Titanium
Exoplanetary research is a hot commodity among astronomers. Not only can it teach us more about planetary formation and the birth of our solar system, but...
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...
SEP 26, 2018
Space & Astronomy
SEP 26, 2018
Do the TRAPPIST-1 Exoplanets Have What it Takes to Support Life?
Among all the extrasolar systems astronomers have discovered to date, the TRAPPIST-1 system is unquestionably one of the most intriguing. Orbiting the host...
OCT 16, 2018
Space & Astronomy
OCT 16, 2018
NASA Astronaut Nick Hague Describes Experience From Failed Soyuz Launch
Just last week, a Russian rocket tasked with sending NASA astronaut Nick Hague and Roscosmos cosmonaut Alexey Ovchinin to the International Space Station f...
OCT 31, 2018
Space & Astronomy
OCT 31, 2018
ESA's European Service Module is Now Ready to be Shipped to the U.S.
Deep space exploration is slowly becoming the primary focus of major space agencies around the globe, and NASA’s Orion spacecraft is poised to become...
Loading Comments...