For the past 58 years, starting in 1957, mankind has been launching
enormous swarms of satellites and useless space debris in the
vicinity of planet Earth. Many of these fragments swoop around our
home planet at 17,000 miles per hour. When they collide at such high
speeds, huge numbers of space debris fragments are instantly
created many of which continue to circle around the Earth with the
possibility of further collisions.
In the 1978 Donald Kessler, a talented researcher at NASA Houston,
realized that successive collisions could create ever larger swarms of
debris fragments that could, in turn, engage in further collisions to
create even more dangerous fragments. Soon the space around the
Earth would be swarming with dangerous, high-speed metallic
shrapnel. This phenomenon has, in the meantime, then called the
“Kessler Syndrome”. It is similar in concept to the nuclear chain
reactions that make atomic bombs possible. Donald Kessler made
careful estimates of the total tonnage of large objects in Earth orbit
that could end up imprisoning us on our beautiful, blue planet. Flying
space missions through swarms of high-speed debris could become
much too dangerous for anyone to advocate.
Separate studies have indicated that a highly energetic collision at a
speed of about five miles per second (typical for low-altitude impacts)
could create as many as 20 objects per pound of mass involved in
What can be done to minimize the probability of a runaway “Kessler
Syndrome” that could, theoretically, imprison all of us on planet
1. We could impose more stringent rules on the launching
satellites and the debris fragments that typically result from such a
launch. Some rules have already been established in conjunction
with space exploration. These could be made more stringent. And
they could be accompanied by fines or other penalties for those who
fail to comply.
2. We could remove existing debris fragments from space to
minimize the hazard of collisions. Some experts envision roving
capture devices (e. g., spaceborne drones) that would rendezvous
with — and remove — useless debris fragments from their orbits and
hurl them back to Earth into remote oceans areas for safe disposal.
3. Ground-based lasers could illuminate selected debris
fragments to push them out of orbit. Serious studies of this approach
have been conducted at NASA headquarters, at NASA Houston, and
at the Kirtland Air Force Base in Albuquerque, New Mexico.
4. Large debris fragments could be tracked with precision with
ground-based and space-based sensors to pin down their trajectories
to a high degree of accuracy. Probable collisions could then be
predicted and spaceborne devices could be launched to nudge one
or both of the objects onto safe collision-free trajectories. Among
other approaches, puffs of air have been proposed to accomplish
In 1978 Donald Kessler managed to develop a highly imaginative
concept now called the Kessler Syndrome. His analysis indicated
that, if we continue on our present path, we could all become
prisoners on planet Earth unable to engage in the safe exploration of
outer space. Fortunately, techniques are available to help mitigate
this worrisome hazard.
Tom Logsdon, who penned this account, tells the story of the space
debris fragments now enveloping planet Earth in his special short
course: “ORBITAL AND LAUNCH MECHANICS” which is being
sponsored by the Applied Technology Institute on January 25 – 28,
2016, in Albuquerque, New Mexico and on March 1 – 4, 2016, in
These courses, which are lavishly illustrated with 400 full-color
visuals, also include detailed explanations of the counterintuitive
nature of powered flight maneuvers together with explanations of the
new “Superhighways in Space”, and the contrasting philosophies of
Russian and American booster rocket design.
The illustrative calculations included in the course all employ realworld
data values gleaned from the instructor’s professional
experiences in the aerospace industry. Each student will receive a
full-color version of every chart that appears on the screen, several
pamphlets and written explanations of the concepts under review,
and autographed copies of two of Logsdon’s published books.
A few slots are still available in those two classes. Register early to assure your acceptance.