Humanity has been launching things into space for more than 50 years now. With so much entering our atmosphere, leftover space debris is making future launches more difficult and dangerous. The question then becomes why it’s happening in the first place.
In 1978, NASA scientist Donald Kessler talked about a chain of events that could basically turn space into a junkyard. Known as Kessler’s Syndrome, it appears our half a century of launching things from Earth may make the theory a reality. Since the late 1950s, hundreds of thousands of satellites, spacecraft, and rockets have entered space at the same trajectory. Though many argue space is enormous and this isn’t an issue, Low Earth Orbit (LEO) does have limited real estate. The flotsam and jetsam from old space vehicles, collision materials, and newly launched satellites are causing congestion, Republic World reports.
The US Department of Defense’s global Space Surveillance Network (SSN) states a staggering 27,000 pieces of orbital debris revolves around the Earth right now. Additionally, there are thousands of other types of debris too small for the SNN’s sensors to pick up. Though small, they still jeopardize the safety of other satellites and space stations.
So, how real a threat is space debris? Besides potentially sabotaging future missions, Kessler’s Syndrome is looking like a real possibility, with one collision potentially sparking a dangerous chain reaction. Should that occur, the debris up there will exponentially increase, which could prove catastrophic for future launches. Even without the collisions occurring, crowding is already a problem. Chief Executive of Rocket Lab, Peter Beck, said it’s becoming increasingly difficult to find a clear path for new rockets and satellites.
Overall, if something isn’t done about everything floating in orbit, the space race may start slowing down.
Elon Musk Defends SpaceX Satellites Against Critics Saying they Congest Earth’s Orbit
When it comes to orbital congestion, it’s natural to look at Elon Musk as a key contributor. Despite SpaceX’s numerous satellite and space launches, Musk defends it against critics and says there shouldn’t be a concern.
Elon Musk’s “Starlink” program is specifically cited as potentially being a problem for orbital congestion. For the uninitiated, the program launched hundreds of satellites into the atmosphere to provide easily-accessible broadband internet. Planning to launch tens of thousands more, many are worried about how much “space” it’ll take up in orbit.
Musk denies such a thing is occurring, the New York Post states. “Space is just extremely enormous, and satellites are very tiny,” the billionaire said. “This is not some situation where we’re effectively blocking others in any way. We’ve not blocked anyone from doing anything, nor do we expect to.”
Continuing, Musk stated there is “room for tens of billions of satellites.” Should that be the case, the 12,000 planned Starlink satellites shouldn’t cause any congestion.