On February 10, 2009, at just before noon Eastern Time, a 1-ton hunk of space debris, formerly the Russian satellite known as Kosmos 2251, slammed into the American Iridium 33 communications satellite going over 40,000 km/h. The collision destroyed both satellites, creating a debris field that continues to travel around the planet, and is considered to be the triggering event of what's known as the Kessler Syndrome.
The Kessler Syndrome, or the Kessler Effect, is a fairly simple concept, most recently demonstrated in the movie Gravity. Collisions between objects (both man-made and natural) in orbit of Earth will result in a cascade effect of further collisions that will eventually make it extremely dangerous to send anything else into orbit — effectively cutting off our access to space. This great short video talks about the Kessler Syndrome and shows how it progresses:
The portrayal of the Kessler Effect in Gravity isn't perfect, of course. You've probably already read the 'take-downs' posted by Neil deGrasse Tyson, Phil Plait, and there are plenty of others. The initial effect of the collisions with Hubble and the space shuttle were done really well. They probably wouldn't have happened in the first place, due to the relative orbits of the satellite that blew up and the HST. Also, the after effects were over-blown as well, since the cascade happened far too quickly and overreached its capabilities, taking out satellites that were far removed from the orbit of all the debris. However, it's a disaster movie, and in disaster movies, if something can go wrong, you can bet it will, just to add to the tension.
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According to what Kessler told Corrinne Burns of The Guardian, the Kosmos-Iridum collision was the start of the syndrome that he predicted. Things are definitely going to get worse from here, even if we don't put more stuff into orbit, but it will take at least 100 years for it to get bad enough to completely ground us. Fortunately, scientists and engineers are working on ways to reduce the amount of debris we already have in orbit, and projects like SpaceX's Grasshopper VTVL rocket could cut down on what ends up there in the future.
(Image courtesy: Warner Bros./YouTube)
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