Image courtesy of NASA
Humanity has managed to clog up the land, sea, and air with our disgusting waste, so one might think we’d be mindful of letting our junk turd up outer space. But nope—turns out the void that surrounds our planet is rapidly filling up with garbage and debris. If we continue hurling our crap into the great beyond at the current rate, it’s going to cause massive problems in the future, namely not being be able to launch spaceships through the cloud of dangerous detritus and making it much more difficult, if not impossible, to explore the galaxy. The prospect of humans being stuck on Earth forever terrifies me, but since it’s probably going to happen anyway I spoke with NASA astrophysicist Don Kessler—who first proposed the idea that too much trash in Earth’s orbit could have some ugly results—to find out exactly what’s in store.
VICE: Was there any forethought about space trash becoming an issue when we first started firing machines and satellites into orbit?
Don Kessler: No. In fact, most people back then believed in the “Big Sky Theory”—that you could launch as much stuff into space as you fancied. They thought that they were shooting things into interplanetary space, but in reality they were cramming them into low Earth orbit.
And the danger, as I understand it, is that the situation will possibly reach a point of no return, at which point space travel will become extremely difficult.
Yes, in the long term. We’re not anywhere near the unmanageable stage yet. The physics of things colliding at high velocity is that each collision creates approximately 100 new fragments large enough to break up other satellites. And when a satellite breaks apart, it leads to a wide distribution of smaller fragments that can damage spacecraft.
How small are we talking here? Like the size of a nut or bolt?
Oh, even smaller. They had to replace a window on the STS-7 shuttle because a paint flake roughly a tenth of a millimeter in diameter hit it, puncturing a hole in the windscreen about four or five millimeters across. That was enough to make it unsafe for a relaunch.
People have this image of space as a very placid place where objects are floating about peacefully. But these bits of debris are actually moving extremely fast, right?
Yes. Just to stay in orbit you have to be traveling at seven kilometers per second. The fact that all of this debris and crafts are circling in different directions means that collisions happen at speeds from zero to 14 kilometers per second. Take the Iridium 33 and Kosmos-2251 collision in 2009, where two satellites collided at near right angles, basically like cars crashing at an intersection. That got everyone’s attention, but it was exactly the sort of thing I had been predicting since 1978.
So how do we prevent ourselves from getting to the point where we’re trapped on this doomed planet?
It’s very similar to climate change; the longer you put off doing anything, the harder it will be to reverse. I would say that for probably 100 years we can continue to do what we are doing now, but after that it will become problematic. Basically, the time to worry about debris in low Earth orbit is now.
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