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How satellite crashes can trigger Kessler syndrome, end space access

cryptodictation.com
 2019-12-28

Cover picture for the articleSpaceX, Amazon, OneWeb, and reportedly even Apple plan to collectively launch tens of thousands of internet-beaming satellites over the next decade.SpaceX, founded by Elon Musk, has the most ambitious plans with approval from the US government to launch nearly 12,000 of its Starlink satellites — though it’s seeking permission to launch a total of 42,000.Though Musk said Starlink satellites have collision-avoidance systems, one came relatively close to smashing into a European satellite in September.The likelihood of satellite collisions and dangerous space debris will go up as more spacecraft are launched. Militaries that destroy satellites during tests or wars will make the problem even worse.Experts worry that debris orbiting Earth could lead to a “Kessler syndrome” domino effect that cuts off human access to space for hundreds or even thousands of years.Sign up for Business Insider’s transportation newsletter, Shifting Gears, to get more stories like this in your inbox.Visit Business Insider’s homepage for more stories.As we rocket more satellites into space, the odds of one crashing into another at very high speeds inextricably goes up.SpaceX and the European Space Agency (ESA) got the most recent and talked-about taste of the problem in early September. The US Air Force told both parties last week that one of SpaceX’s new Starlink internet satellites and the ESA’s wind-monitoring Aeolus spacecraft might crash on September 2. The odds of that eventuality soon climbed to 1-in-1,000 — but the ESA couldn’t reach SpaceX, so it fired a thruster on Aeolus to avoid risking a hit.Close calls like this are still rare, but they’ll rise in frequency as SpaceX, OneWeb, Amazon, and perhaps even Apple, as Bloomberg reported on December 20, collectively aim to send up tens of thousands of new satellites. SpaceX, founded by Elon Musk, has the most ambitious plans with approval from the US government to launch nearly 12,000 of its Starlink satellites — though it’s seeking permission to launch a total of 42,000.Any accidental smash-ups of satellites generate countless tiny pieces of space junk, as do deliberate shoot-downs of spacecraft, such as India’s “Mission Shakti” test in May.Thankfully, the US government and its partners track about 23,000 human-made objects floating in space that are larger than a softball. These satellites and chunks of debris zip around the planet at more than 17,500 mph — roughly 10 times the speed of a bullet. Until April 1, the list of space junk even included China’s school-bus-size Tiangong-1 space station, which burned up in Earth’s atmosphere.However, there are millions of smaller pieces of space junk orbiting Earth, too.”There’s lots of smaller stuff we can see but can’t put an orbit, a track on it,” Jesse Gossner, an orbital-mechanics engineer who teaches at the US Air Force’s Advanced Space Operations School, told Business Insider in 2018.As companies and government agencies launch more spacecraft, concerns are growing about the likelihood of a “Kessler syndrome” event: a cascading series of orbital collisions that may curtail human access to space for hundreds of years.Here’s who is keeping tracking of space junk, how satellite collisions are avoided, and what is being done to prevent disaster on the final frontier.This story has been updated. It was originally published on March 27, 2018.

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