One To Worry About - The Kessler Syndrome

  • Posted on: 15 December 2021
  • By: David Trammel

(I was going to do a second post on metal studs, but my shelving didn't get here until yesterday, so it will be next week.)


If you spend any time on the Facebook groups for preppers and survivalists, you'll hear all sorts of doom's day scenarios to be worried about. From the Yellowstone super volcano erupting to cover the US in ash, to rouge terrorist detonating an electro-magnetic pulse weapon and frying all of our electronics, to a solar coronal mass ejection bathing the Earth with lethal radiation. Hell, I've even seen serious discussion to the Zombie Apocalypse and even a Pandemic killing millions, like either of those are likely to happen. These all share one thing, a incredibly slim chance of happening but a high degree of damage if it does.

One scenario which sometimes get discussed along with these, which I feel has relatively high chance of actually happening in my lifetime is a Kessler Syndrome Event. Let's look at what this kind of event is, what it would do to society, and what we can do to prepare for it.

(From the 2013 movie "Gravity", Warner Bros. Pictures)

Maybe you caught the 2013 movie "Gravity, which starred Sandra Bullock as an astronaut in Earth orbit. While on a space walk doing an upgrade on the Hubble Space Telescope, debris from a botched destruction by the Russians of a dead satellite slams into the Space Shuttle and the Hubble. The debris kills the rest of the Shuttle crew except for her partner on the space walk, and renders it unfit to return to Earth. The rest of the movie is their attempt to get to the International Space Station and then to return to Earth. While hyped for entertainment, the situation of orbital debris causing cascading damage to other assets in space is the basis for the "Kessler Syndrome".

A Bit Of History Of Space Junk
The US Military, via the North American Aerospace Defense Command (aka NORAD) has been watching and categorizing space junk from the start of the space age in 1957. Coincidentally the year I was born. Both the US and Russia were some pretty trashy operators in space, leaving spent booster, dead satellites and other debris in orbit without care or a plan for cleaning it up. It was during the height of the early space exploration that a NORAD employee John Gabbard began to study the debris in detail. Gabbard developed techniques to predict the paths of this debris and to model orbital evolution and decay over time.

In the 70s, NASA scientist Donald J. Kessler, who had been studying the asteroid belt and its formation, took his research and applied it to Gabbard's work. In 1978, Kessler and his co-author Burton Cour-Palais published a paper demonstrating that the eventual collision process that dead satellites would go through would mimic that which the asteroid belt underwent in its early history, and would end up forming a similar ring of orbital junk. Only instead of millions of years, as the asteroid belt had taken, this process would be much quick, perhaps even as short as a few decades if we kept on the pace of space development we were doing.

The pace of development increased and the frequency that space debris was being formed was known to be underestimated. Gabbard himself knew that the NORAD data didn't track most objects. This concern prompted NASA to fund further studies into the 80s, which found under counted the amount of debris by at least 50%! Particularly in the very small range of under 8 inches and under 2 pounds.

Debris moves at a high speed while in orbit, typically in the neighborhood of 20,000 mph (10 km/sec), or roughly ten times the speed of a bullet. While very small particles cause minimal damage, the larger ones in the 2 pound range could seriously damage or destroy satellites or space craft. If the debris hit a high density part of the craft, the collusion could then generate more debris. This self generation of more objects is what makes a Kessler event particularly dangerous. At a certain density of orbital objects, the first collusion's debris would then go on to damage more objects, resulting in even more debris, until we reached a point where almost all orbital assets would be damaged or destroyed.

In May of 2021, damage to the robotic arm aboard the International Space Station was discovered. How and when is not known, but illustrated the potential for this to begin without us knowing.

Or, the later example of the intentional destruction of the Kosmos 1408 satellite by a Russian missile test in November of that year, means we may start it ourselves by mistake. The test resulted in a large debris cloud of an estimated 1500 pieces of small particles which are still orbiting and present a danger.

It is estimated that at this time there are over half a million pieces of debris in orbit, the size of the ball bearing in the picture. And another possible 100 million millimetre sized particles, which represent the highest danger to unmanned spacecraft. All it takes is one nut or bolt to strike a critical circuit board to render a expensive communication satellite just more junk.

In 2014 there were an about 2000 commercial and governmental satellites in orbit. As of this year, the number has tripled and it is rapidly increasing as companies expand into space. SpaceX's own satellite Internet project wants to put an additional 12,000 more in orbit by 2026.

Many of the past assets are no longer active and therefore of particular danger. An active and controlled satellite can be moved out of the path of orbital debris if we know about the danger. Inactive assets are so many sitting ducks. While international regulations mandate that satellites at the end of their life span be moved to a parking orbit, less than 60% of companies obey this regulation. Going forward it will only get worse.

Anyone think that Corporations or Governments will do anything? There have been some fantasifull ideas of space junkmen, or deploying huge space nets to collect the debris, but like most solutions being proposed for the problems we face, they aren't going to be enough or in time.

With A Note On Page 15...
I suspect that the spectacular example shown in the movie "Gravity" is not going to be our real world notice that this scenario has begun. Instead we'll see it start with a minor news story covered only by a few websites for space enthusiasts and techno nerds. Some satellite will malfunction. Some part of the Internet will go down. Some shipping companies will have problems with their fleet of trucks or ships. Maybe a self driving car will get into a crash and no one will know who to blame?

From there, more problems will crop up. Maybe the people in the know will guess the correct cause. Maybe financial concerns will cover it up. What do you think Tesla would do if they discovered their self driving cars could no longer access GPS? What will that do for stock prices? Maybe politicians will point fingers at foreign countries for partisan gains.

That's what makes this particular scenario for me, scary. Like Greer's "Long Descent", this will take its time and happen not over days or weeks, but years and even decades. Its a slow boil in the lobster pot.

Global corporations are banking on their ability to write human labor out of their bottom line in the Future. What happens when they can't? Will they try and pivot back to humans in the workforce? Or will they double down? They've not had a good track record for thinking long so far.

I would guess that not one captain in 20 on board the giant global shipping vessels knows how to use a sexton and a compass to guide their ships across the vast distance of the Oceans they currently travel. How screwed up will global supply chains be if its not a question of unloading ships at port, but of ships even getting to those ports?

I suspect that many people today, couldn't get to where they needed to go without asking their phones, or consulting their MapAp.

So much of today's "tomorrow" infrastructure is being moved to orbit. Its just cheaper for companies to not worry about buying right of ways, or digging holes. Society's vulnerability therefore will just increase.

But what about the danger to each of us individually or our families?

This is one advantage this scenario has over the others, its quite easily planned for and to take steps to protect yourself.

What Can YOU Do?
If you are reading this, and are an old hand at the principles we speak about here on Green Wizards, probably the only thing you need to do is buy more popcorn, lol.

Honestly, if you've done the preparation you should be doing to handle the Long Descent and the coming collapse of global civilization you are probably 95% ready. We've all been helped by this past year's issues with the supply chains. Seeing the ways that it could grind to a halt with reality minor disruptions gives us a preview of what will happen if a Kessler event happens.

Again though, the nature of the cascading collapse should give us some protection.

What you can do now, is take a hard look at how much your lifestyle depends on distant resources. Put away some extras, order some spare parts for critical equipment.

One thing we will do here soon is discuss how to use a compass and a map. If you don't have a good set of street guides to your neighborhood, consider buying some. Make a holiday gift to some of your friends too. Maybe your adult or teenage kids as well. Or sit down and discuss this possibility next time they are over.

The first way to address an potential problem is to recognize it.

But then, Green Wizards recognize a lot of things, don't we?


Next week we'll get back to our practical work in my basement as we finish up my under the stairs project.

(I'll post a picture here tomorrow, I forgot to grab my camera today and bring it home.)


ClareBroommaker's picture

What, can't we send US Space Force [grand echo-echo-echo!] out with super double titanium-tungsten fishing nets to capture all the garbage?

Sweet Tatorman's picture

>I would guess that not one captain in 20 on board the giant global shipping vessels knows how to use a sexton and a compass to guide their ships across the vast distance of the Oceans they currently travel.<

Sextons are not that useful for navigation anyway ;-)

A sextANT is the navigational tool. A sexton is the person who digs graves and manages the churchyard. So I doubt that any captain in current contemporary life could apply a sexton to the problem with any success. And the vicar would only be able to pray or preach the debris out of existence.

David Trammel's picture

We've said that Green Wizards may end up as a monastic organization some day. Maybe a future reincarnation decided to slip a bit of word humor in there on me, when I wasn't looking, lol.

kma's picture

I unilaterally decide to award you a silver star for the image of a vicar praying away space debris. (only JMG can give out gold stars.)

(I'm totally imaging that britcom show but I can't think of the name)

I am honored. I shall hang my virtual silver star on my virtual Yule tree with actual pride.

Is the series you are thinking of the Vicar of Dibley, perhaps? Or the Vicar of the angel-roofed Fen church in the Lord Peter Wimsey story called Nine Tailors?

Glad Yule to you all.

My kids (in their 20's) tell me that they are the only people their age who can read a map.

Worse, I've been told that driving a different, unfamiliar route (without a GPS to tell you to) is enough to induce panic in some people. That is, don't drive any route other than the one I know.

This is a serious lack of flexibility and an even more serious loss of mental mapping abilities.

I've seen a dear friend with her GPS; she's my age and uses her GPS exclusively. I'm not sure she knows what road she's on anymore.

ClareBroommaker's picture

If I were a parent of young kids, I would certainly take note of that map-ignorance, and make sure my kids learned how to make, read and really use maps. It can start as a challenge to draw things as if seen from above. What does a chair look like from above? How about a mug? A tree? Your dog? Your house? Your house with driveway, sidewalk, and street? And so on.

Neither of us in this household have GPS. We do have paper maps, but we don't have a detailed one of our metro area. I will fix that.

This past summer, I went on a map reading challenge to find a non-freeway route to our family cabin from Salt Lake. Going south on I-15 can be a real trial most times, so for the last several years I have tried to find a non-freeway route to anywhere I need to go. In this case I found a collection of frontage roads, and dirt roads that when followed allowed a person to get all the way from Salt Lake to Kanosh, 154 miles south of Salt Lake and roughly paralleling I-15. I used maps I bought from the Utah Department of Natural Resouces to find my way. In several cases, the maps were more accurate then Google maps.

On our way home from the annual trek to Las Vegas for the Thanksgiving day feast, we used maps for Nevada and Utah to find non freeway routes home and we never touch I-15 once. What a treat. The new scenery was enjoyable but I think the best part was not having to deal with the crazy freeway energy that is always there during holiday travel times. The time needed to travel this alternative route wasn't that much more then usual and it certainly would have saved time over being stuck in the all to frequent holiday traffic jams on the freeway.

I learned to read maps as a child in both school and in Girl Scouts. If you haven't learned to read maps, by all means find a teacher or a book to learn from as this is such a worthy skill to have.

Copper's picture

Really? I think I-15 is harder to navigate in the city than outside the city, but once you hit California where there's 3-4 other major interstates intersecting, that's when things get tricky. But always Good to know how to get to different places two different ways, I always head southwest during the holidays into rural Colorado and the two things we always take into consideration is road closures because of snow. Good to know theres a fellow Utahn in here!

I know how to read maps getting from point a to point b, but topographical maps are another beast.