According to a new European Space Agency short film, thousands of tiny satellites will be released into space. While this may be a good thing, the debris the satellites may encounter could endanger future missions and harm the Earth. Approximately 800 miles above the Earth, there are many defunct satellites in constant orbit around the planet, threatening the International Space Station (ISS). The tiny satellites, which are getting cheaper and cheaper to make, are being launched into space at an alarming rate.
The Washington Post reported that in a “worst-case scenario” a “chain-reaction” accident could happen in the Earth’s orbit. Debris from this accident could rain down on Earth and harm flora and fauna on Earth. The film, Space Debris: A Journey to Earth was shown at the conference Space Debris 2017 recently. According to NASA, “space junk” continues to orbit the Earth. Tiny paint flecks, traveling 25,000 mph can do extreme damage to a spacecraft by taking out the window, and roughly 2,000 satellite shards from a collision between two satellites that occurred a few years ago.
Another short film, Gravity, showed a scenario where this space junk destroyed the ISS. European Space Agency General Director said the possibility of a collision with space debris was a “very serious one.” Astronaut Thomas Pesquet described what the ISS crew does when a piece of space junk passes by; he said the crew climbs into an escape shuttle, waits to see what is going to happen, and hopes the junk does not collide with the ISS. Since he has been at the ISS, the crew has had to climb into an escape shuttle “four times.”
Donald Kessler, retired NASA scientist coined the theory the Kessler syndrome or an “orbital Nagasaki.” In the Kessler syndrome, an unstoppable cascade of collisions could occur with debris continuing to collide with other debris and creating even more. Even in low-orbit, the Kessler syndrome can occur. In a briefing from the Space Debris 2017 conference, several presentations concerned the space debris, active debris removal, avoiding collisions, and international cooperation.
A European Space Agency official described a recent study foretelling the Kessler syndrome, and as satellites get cheaper and smaller, the potential for them crashing into space debris and each other gets higher and higher. About 7,000 spacecraft have left Earth. Within the next few years, “12,000 new satellites” will launch.
Because of their lack of navigation, these tiny satellites, long after they have stopped working, will keep moving through space, which will increase the likelihood of them colliding with other objects. Currently, no solution has been found to clean up space debris and stop the Kessler syndrome from happening.
By Cheryl Werber
Photo Courtesy ESA/ID&Sense/ONiRiXEL