Our civilization relies on the fleet of satellites orbiting the planet, for everything from TV broadcasts to credit card payments. There’s a lot of them–974 in operation at last count. We’ve launched thousands more and many of those are still in orbit. An upcoming movie, subject of Space Junk 3-D, attempts to give viewers a visceral appreciation for the overwhelming amount of tras
I love this trailer so much. Narrator Tom Wilkinson sombrely tells us that, “our planet’s need for communication has transformed what was once called ‘the final frontier’ into something far less romantic,” and then, BOOM, a satellite EXPLODES.
Historically, satellite operators have relied on the “big sky theory” to assume that the likelihood of collision between satellites is extremely low, says the Space Junk 3D press kit. This has meant that de-orbiting dead satellites hasn’t been much of a priority. We’ve left them up there and it’s starting to get crowded.
Here’s a doomsday scenario for you: As space gets more and more crowded, the likelihood of a collision increases. Any given collision is likely to throw off more debris, which makes space more crowded, which further increases the likelihood of collision. The production of debris is an exponential process (this is known as the Kessler Syndrome) and it ends with a low orbit debris field made up of countless tiny projectiles moving at speeds measured in miles per second. In the worst case scenario, this means an impassable orbital environment–we trap ourselves and our equipment on the planet.
This is a real problem. In 2009, Iridium 33 collided with defunct satellite Kosmos 225 at 11.6km/sec, resulting in hundreds of pieces of debris large enough to catastrophically damage another satellite. In 2010, Galaxy 15 became a zombie satellite when operators on the ground lost control and it began drifting through the orbits of its neighbours. There are thousands of near misses every day and it is becoming increasingly hard to monitor them all and ensure that satellite operators are taking appropriate evasive maneuvers (if you do this too often, you run out of fuel and your satellite joins the ranks of the orbiting dead).
“It isn’t a coincidence that media headlines of falling debris are growing just as we launch this film,” says director, Melissa Butts, “As we started researching this story we found that most scientists agree we’ve reached this tipping point where orbital debris will continue to grow exponentially if we don’t address the problem.”
[Top image: NASA]