After the successful release of the Hollywood blockbuster hit movie "Gravity," the average joe is now aware of the hazards of space junk. U.S. lawmakers have met to discuss the implications of increasing amounts of space debris orbiting the planet.
While "Gravity" may be a work of fiction, scientists are still very aware of the real dangers of space debris and the possible occurrence of what is known as the Kessler Syndrome or the Kessler Effect. The Kessler Syndrome is a theoretical scenario that was proposed back in 1978 by a NASA scientist named Donald Kessler. Kessler proposed that the increasing number of space junk in low Earth Orbit (LEO) could lead to a collision between two objects. While these types of collisions are considered as normal, the more worrying possibility is that a collision could cause a cascade of other collisions as seen in the movie "Gravity."
In a worst case scenario, a continuing Kessler effect could make space travel very difficult. Moreover, cascading collisions between space debris could also render the use of satellites virtually impossible. Losing satellites isn't just a concern for the military. Aside from spy satellites, various civilian activities also depend on satellites to work. Things like GPS, satellite weather tracking and satellite imaging would become unfeasible.
Last Friday, a number of experts on space debris testified before the US congress in a hearing called "Space Traffic Management: How to Prevent a Real Life Gravity." The hearing was aimed at warning lawmakers about the dangers of space junk on any and all space related activities.
"More than 500,000 pieces of debris, or "space junk," are tracked as they orbit the Earth," says NASA. "They all travel at speeds up to 17,500 mph, fast enough for a relatively small piece of orbital debris to damage a satellite or a spacecraft."
The experts speaking in front of U.S. lawmakers also said that new rules are required to help prevent the possibility of a Kessler Syndrome happening sometime in the future. Moreover, the panel also heard a request from the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) about increasing their authority to cover operators of commercial satellites in space. To date, satellite operators are not required to answer to any U.S. agency. Giving the FAA authority over civilian satellites could help prevent possible collisions between active satellites and space debris. With an agency monitoring satellite activities, evasive action could be ordered in order to prevent collisions in space.
"The greatest risk to space missions comes from non-trackable debris," said NASA chief scientist in charge of orbital debris Nicholas Johnson.