Space Junk: How big a problem is the orbital debris?

The captioned topic is more popular since the new movie “Gravity” was released. has a short briefing on orbital debris – I can’t vouch for the accuracy, but if correct, this is interesting:

The majority of catalogued objects (65 percent) result from a Chinese anti-satellite test in 2007, and the accidental collision of two satellites in 2009. When objects in different orbits intersect, the collision takes place at a speed of thousands of miles per hour.  

We recommend the movie “Gravity”, bearing in mind that it is entertainment, not a documentary. IEEE Spectrum looked at the space junk issue on the day of the “Gravity” release:

The Kessler syndrome imagines a situation where the thousands of pieces of space junk in Earth orbit begin to multiply as accidental collisions create even more debris over time. In 2012, Donald Kessler and Darren McKnight argued in IEEE Spectrum that the sheer density of space debris leftover from decades of spacecraft and satellite launches, explosions and collisions had already reached a mathematical tipping point that would enable a runaway debris scenario.

Space debris already poses a very real danger to both astronauts and satellites, even when it’s not rapidly multiplying like the sped-up Kessler syndrome envisioned in “Gravity.” The ever-growing cloud of space junk has occasionally forced the International Space Station to dodge out of the way and even go into emergency evacuation mode. It also poses a danger for satellites, as was graphically illustrated in a 2009 collision between an active Iridium communications satellite and a defunct Russian satellite.


3 thoughts on “Space Junk: How big a problem is the orbital debris?

  1. It definitely is a problem, though a Grumman engineer retiree in the family nearly had a stroke laughing at the Gravity promos of how everything “shatters like stained glass” and disintegrates into tinsel and confetti in orbit. In truth it’d be more like being struck by bullets leaving clean holes not shattered shards, as exampled by the Mir-supply ship collision. He believes the ultimate solution will be extremely high powered lasers to either outright vaporize the small debris NORAD can currently detect which is around a softball (space-based radar might peg that down to a screw) and constantly wearing away the surfaces of larger ones till they deorbit from so many gradually decelerating strikes. Physically chasing debris is non-starter and impractical. Myself, I’m surprised that so many movie bad science nit-pickers have given this film such a pass, being so awed silly by the SPX.

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