Magazine article Wired

Waste MGMT

Magazine article Wired

Waste MGMT

Article excerpt


Last year, two satellites collided 500 miles above Siberia, adding thousands of fragments to the half-million pieces of junk already orbiting Earth. Now it's time to take out the trash before the trash takes out the International Space Station.

On clear winter nights, when the trees are bare, Donald Kessler likes to set up a small telescope on the back deck of his house in Asheville, North Carolina, and zoom in on the stars shining over the Blue Ridge Mountains. It's not the most advanced home observatory, but the retired NASA scientist treasures his Celestron telescope, which was made in 1978. That also happens to be the year Kessler published the paper that made his reputation in aerospace circles. Assigned to the Environmental Effects Project Office at NASA's Johnson Space Center in Houston, the astrophysicist had gotten interested in the junk that humans were abandoning in the wild black yonder everything from nuts and tools to defunct satellites and rocket stages the size of school buses.

In that seminal paper, Collision Frequency of Artificial Satellites: The Creation of a Debris Belt, Kessler painted a nightmare scenario: Spent satellites and other space trash would accumulate until crashes became inevitable. Colliding objects would shatter into countless equally dangerous fragments, setting off a chain reaction of additional crashes. The result would be an exponential increase in the number of objects with time, he wrote, creating a belt of debris around the Earth.

At age 38, Kessler had found his calling. Not that his bosses had encouraged him to look into the issue they didn't like what I was finding, he recalls. But after the paper came out, NASA set up the Orbital Debris Program Office to study the problem and put Kessler in charge. He spent the rest of his career tracking cosmic crap and forming alliances with counterparts in other nations in an effort to slow its proliferation. His description of a runaway cascade of collisions which he predicted would happen in 30 to 40 years became known as the Kessler syndrome.

While the scenario was accepted in theory by NASA officials, nothing much was done about it. Capturing and disposing of space junk would be expensive and difficult, and the threat was too far in the future to trigger much worry. After Kessler retired in 1996, he grew a trim gray beard, peered through his telescope on those clear nights, and waited. I knew something would happen eventually, he says.

Then, on February 10, 2009 just a little more than three decades after the publication of his paper the Kessler syndrome made its stunning debut. Some 500 miles over the Siberian tundra, two satellites were cruising through space, each racing along at about 5 miles per second. Iridium 33 was flying north, relaying phone conversations. A long-retired Russian communication outpost called Cosmos 2251 was tumbling east in an uncontrolled orbit. Then they collided. The ferocious impact smashed the satellites into roughly 2,100 pieces. Repercussions on the ground were minimal perhaps a few dropped calls but up in the sky, the consequences were serious. The wreckage quickly expanded into a cloud of debris, each shard an orbiting cannonball capable of destroying yet another hunk of high-priced hardware.

Kessler painted a nightmare scenario: Old satellites and other space trash would collide and shatter into countless fragments, setting off a chain reaction of still more crashes.

As Kessler received reports of the collision from former colleagues at NASA, he realized that the situation had played out pretty much as he'd foreseen. After all, he had forecast that the first satellite collision would happen around this time between objects of roughly this mass. Like an opening shot in a war, the crash served as a signal that the syndrome had gone from theory to reality. Some people weren't aware how fast these objects are going, he says. At those speeds, even something quite small can create tremendous damage. …

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