It’s not often that scientific papers serve as inspiration for movie plot points. You might be forgiven for thinking that this paper published in the Journal of Geophysical Research couldn’t possibly have engendered any sort of excitement in your typical pre-COVID, movie-going audience.
“Gravity,” the 2013 thriller starring Sandra Bullock and George Clooney is actually heavily inspired by the dire warnings in that paper. It raked in over $700 million at the box office and would beg to differ.
The paper predicts that space travel might soon become impossible – or at very least, really dangerous.
Every time we launch a rocket, put a satellite into orbit around the Earth or decommission one that’s already orbiting, we leave behind bits of human-made material just floating around in space. Sometimes, satellites are literally exploded into thousands of pieces of debris when decommissioned.
In other cases, debris includes nonfunctional spacecraft, abandoned launch vehicle stages, mission-related debris and fragmentation debris.
According to NASA, there are more than 20,000 pieces of debris larger than a softball orbiting the Earth. There are 500,000 pieces of debris the size of a marble or larger. There are many millions of pieces of debris that are so small they can’t be tracked.
And each one of these pieces can prove extremely dangerous to future space expeditions and existing space infrastructure like the International Space Station.
Space debris is dangerous because it typically orbits Earth at speeds up to 17,500 miles per hour, fast enough for a relatively small piece of orbital debris to damage a satellite or a spacecraft it collides with.
According to NASA, even tiny paint flecks can damage a spacecraft when traveling at these velocities. In fact a number of space shuttle windows have been replaced because of damage caused by material that was analyzed and shown to be paint flecks.
“The greatest risk to space missions comes from non-trackable debris,” said Nicholas Johnson, NASA chief scientist for orbital debris.
But the danger space debris could pose to spacecraft had already been studied in the 1970s in the very paper – titled “Collision frequency of artificial satellites: The creation of a debris belt” – that inspired the movie “Gravity.”
The paper argued that as the number of artificial satellites in earth orbit increases, the probability of collisions between satellites also increases. Satellite collisions would produce orbiting fragments, each of which would increase the probability of further collisions, leading to the growth of a belt of debris around the earth.
Basically, the paper warns that if the density of space debris gets high enough, a collision between objects could cause a cascade of other collisions which in turn would increase the chances of future collisions. This is called the Kessler Syndrome, named after the primary author of the paper.
The worrying implication is that the Kessler Syndrome, if it comes to effect, could render space activities and the use of satellites in specific orbital ranges difficult for many generations. The Space Age could come to an abrupt and violent end.
Cleaning up space, the common heritage of mankind
The seas, oceans, cultural wonders of the world, Antarctica and space: All of these are taken by various United Nations conventions to be held in trust and protected for future generations, belonging in common to all humanity.
To help develop the technology needed to clean up space, a Tokyo-headquartered Astroscale company recently launched a pair of spacecraft from the Baikonur cosmodrome in Kazakhstan that are designed to give a demonstration of how to clean up orbital debris. Essentially, they have magnets attached to them that attract space debris from around Earth’s orbit. Ultimately, the pair will be commanded to come out of orbit to burn up in the atmosphere.
In our shortsighted ambition, we sometimes forget to the value of our common heritage. We certainly did that with our seas, oceans, Antarctica and cultural wonders of the world. We have got to make sure that we leave at least space, our final frontier, safe for future exploration.
Did you know your Google Maps and Internet usage was contributing to space pollution? Do you think we should be spending our time cleaning up space junk? Let us know in the comments below!