If a disastrous space junk chain reaction ends up surrounding Earth with a belt of destructive shrapnel, state-of-the-art infrared cameras and gel-based rockets just might help future satellites dodge such debris, a new study finds.
Space debris might not sound dangerous until one realizes that in low Earth orbit — up to about 1,200 miles (2,000 kilometers) in altitude — such debris collides with an average speed of about 22,370 mph (36,000 km/h), according to NASA. At such speeds, even tiny pieces of space debris can inflict devastating damage.
Collisions with space debris have already led to millions of dollars in losses. For example, on Feb. 10, 2009, an active U.S. communications satellite called Iridium 33 was obliterated when it was struck by a defunct Russian satellite Cosmos 2251 built in the 1960s.
In addition, such disasters can generate more debris that could go on to destroy more objects in orbit, a cascade of destruction that might ultimately create a debris belt around Earth. This worst-case chain-reaction scenario is known as the “Kessler effect” or “Kessler syndrome,” a scenario that NASA scientist Donald Kessler predicted in 1978.