Kessler Syndrome

I remember a time, not long ago, when we laughed at the introduction of Space Force from then-president Donald Trump. It was easy to jest, with the name that itself sounded like a parody, coming from a president that never could quite get anything real done. Of course, some of us remember “Star Wars,” the space missile shield that president Reagan made up to psych-out the Soviets. Decades of science fiction speculation haven’t quite turned out the way they were depicted. None of us are using jet packs to get to work and we haven’t colonized the moon or Mars. We’ve been conditioned to be skeptical about outlandish sounding initiatives involving space.

A lot has gone on in space in the last 50 years, though. Despite that progress, not the least of which has been the incredible proliferation of satellites that we’ve quickly come to depend on, the last rules of engagement were set in the sixties, according to this cover story in Harper’s, which makes predictions about the coming battle for space.

The Washington Post reports on the recent destruction of one of their own satellites by the Russians.

Russia’s Ministry of Defense confirmed in a statement that it “successfully conducted a test, as a result of which the inactive Russian spacecraft Tselina-D, which has been in orbit since 1982, was hit.”

But the ministry said the test “did not and will not post a threat to orbital stations, spacecraft and space activities.”

Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said Tuesday that the U.S. claim “that Russia poses risks to activities for the peaceful use of outer space is, to say the least, hypocrisy.”

He said it’s the Americans who have ignored proposals from Russia and China on arms regulation in space.

That hardly sounds like a friendly exchange. It makes you think we may need a Space Force sooner rather than later. The risks are not all military, though. Clive Thompson writes about a prediction, called Kessler Syndrome, made over 40 years ago about orbiting debris (the kind made by the Russian strike).1

Back in 1978, the astrophysicist Donald Kessler made an alarming prediction: Space junk could wreck our ability to keep satellites aloft.

The Russian action created 1500 detectable pieces of debris and many more smaller pieces. With this kind of junk piling up, Thompson notes, we could end up with a planetary ring of garbage like the one depicted in Wall-E. That situation would be very dangerous for satellites because even small debris hurdling through space at high velocity can cause significant damage. If satellites were taken out, civilization could have a serious and rapid regression.

It looks like it’s time to start paying sustained attention to space again. 


  1. It’s worth noting that the US and China tested similar strikes on their own satellites in the aughts. [return]
Robert Rackley @frostedechoes