Tuesday, February 12, 2013

The Kessler Syndrome

The Kessler syndrome is the catastrophic distruction of satellites through a chain reaction of collisions among satellites circling the globe in the same orbit. When one satellite collides with another, it shatters into hundreds of pieces, which in turn collide with other satellites, until, as the theory goes all satellites are destroyed. There are many events which could trigger the Kessler Syndrome.
Are we at risk of losing all communication satellites? To many, the claim that we are at risk, is like Chicken Little screaming, “The sky is falling, the sky is falling.”  Certainly, our dependence on satellites and the potential of losing our electronics dependent way of life should not be brushed aside as easily as a panicked chicken in a fairy tale. Our reliance on satellites touches our lives in every aspect, from a vacation trip in a car, airline, or cruise ship, to our daily conversations on the telephone and the hot cup of coffee we enjoyed this morning. Our emails to a friend and our tweets about the big game coming up this weekend would not be possible without our communication satellites. On a more serious note, our military relies on satellites for everything from guiding aircraft, ships and drones, missiles and rockets, to communication in battle.
What would the world be like, if our satellites were rendered inoperable? Our electrical grid would go down, our GPS unites in our auto, buses, trains, airplanes and ships would be worthless, and our telephone service would be seriously, if not completely disrupted. For all practical purposes, communication in the United States and around the world would be nonexistent. Without satellites, we would have to fall back on systems of communication that we used prior to the first Telstar satellite put in orbit July 10, 1962.
So, what is the threat? We take our age of information for granted. What could go wrong?
In 2010 China launched a satellite that rendezvoused with another of their own satellites. It could just as well come in contact with one of ours and put it out of commission. What’s the first thing an enemy would do in an attack on out country? Wipe out our communications. Everyday we are bombarded with accounts of China hacking into our military, defense, large banks and our industrial giants. This is fact. Friday, 2/15/13, an asteroid dubbed 2012 DA14, half the size of a football field, will pass between the earth and the moon, closer to the earth than many of our communication satellites. There is the potential for it to strike one of those satellites, triggering The Kessler Syndrome. If that seems like a remote possibility, consider this. On Friday the 13th, April 2029, an even larger asteroid will pass between the earth and the moon and we can’t do a thing to protect our satellites other than watch and hope. If Asteroids are a remote concern, the sun poses a significant risk of wiping out our communications. Solar flares will someday wipe out some of our satellites and possibly a portion of our electrical grid; this is a certainty, according to some scientists, but not a threat of triggering the Kessler Syndrome.
Any of the above scenarios could cause widespread disruptions in our way of life, but the one most likely, The Kessler Syndrome, which was originally proposed to NASA by Scientist, Donald Kessler, in the 1978 has already threatened our satellite system. On February 10th, 2009, a decommissioned Russian satellite, Cosmos 2251, collided with a U.S. communication satellite, Iridium 33, the two shattering into approximately 2100 pieces. Because there is no international control over the orbit of satellites launched from countries around the world, the Kessler Syndrome will quite possibly happen in our lifetime. When I penned the spy novel, The Kessler Syndrome, it was with the hope that the things fictionalized in the story, would never come to pass. But with all the things that can happen, some day, when we least expect it, the lights, our phone service, all of our communication may vanish. Maybe I should have printed the book on paper, instead of electronically. Just a thought.

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  1. Hello Larry,
    I enjoyed reading your interesting post. I have thought for the last several years that our power grids, banking, automobiles, factories, and almost every business, etc., along with everything else that depends on computers, would be devastated by an attack on satellites and/or the Internet system. I cannot imagine returning to the old ways of doing things. This is definitely worth thinking about.
    Dallas A.Dixon

  2. As our life becomes easier due to advanced technology, we also become more vulnerable to disruption by either malfunction or sabotage. At a minimum advanced societies need redundancies in critical technologies, but we may also want to invest in less vulnerable more sustainable tech.