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How the Kessler Syndrome can end all space exploration and destroy modern life
An increasingly likely catastrophe can cause major disruptions in space flight and our daily lives.
Exploring space is one of humanity’s most hopeful activities. By going out into the great unknown of the Universe, we hope to extend our reach, find new resources and life forms, while solving many of our earthly problems. But going to space is not something to take for granted—it can actually become impossible. There is a scenario, called the Kessler Syndrome, that can cause the end of all space exploration and dramatically impact our daily lives.
In 1978, the NASA scientist Donald J. Kessler proposed that a chain reaction of exploding space debris can end up making space activities and the use of satellites impossible for generations. He predicted that the number of objects that we keep launching into Low Earth Orbit (LEO) can create such a dense environment above the planet that inevitable collisions could cause a cascading effect. The space junk and shrapnel generated by one collision could make further collisions much more possible. And if you have enough collisions, the amount of space debris could overwhelm the orbital space entirely.
What makes that situation possible is the fact that there are millions of micrometeoroids as well as man-made debris that is already orbiting Earth. The danger posed by even a small fragment that’s traveling at high speeds is easy to see. As calculated by NASA, a 1-centimeter “paint fleck” traveling at 10km/s (22,000 mph) can cause the same damage as a 550-pound object traveling 60 miles per hour on Earth. If the size of the shard was increased to 10 centimeters, such a projectile would have the force of 7 kilograms of TNT. Now imagine thousands of such objects flying around at breakneck speeds and crashing into each other.
Distribution of debris around Earth. (Credit: ESA)
If a chain reaction of exploding space junk did occur, filling the orbital area with such dangerous debris, the space program would indeed be in jeopardy. Travel that goes beyond the LEO, like the planned mission to Mars, would be made more challenging but still conceivably possible.
What would, of course, be affected if the Kessler Syndrome’s worst predictions came to pass, are all the services that rely on satellites. Core aspects of our modern life—GPS, television, military and scientific research—all of that would be under threat.
NASA experienced a small-scale Kessler Syndrome incident in the 1970s when Delta rockets that were left in orbit started to explode into shrapnel clouds. This inspired Kessler, an astrophysicist, to show that there is a point when the amount of debris in an orbit gets to critical mass. At that point, the collision cascading would start even if no more things are launched into space. And once the chain of explosions begins, it can keep going until the orbital space can no longer be used.
Space junk. (Credit: Shutterstock)
In Kessler’s estimate, it would take 30 to 40 years to get to such a threshold. NASA says that its experts caution that we are already at critical mass in the low-Earth orbit, which is about 560-620 miles (900 to 1,000 kilometers) out.
According to NASA estimates, the Earth’s orbit currently has 500,000 pieces of space debris up to 10cm long, over 21,000 pieces of debris longer than 10cm, and more than 100 million pieces of space debris smaller than 1cm.
A 2009 incident dubbed the Cosmos-Iridium collision featured a space collision between Russian and American communication satellites that provided a preview of potential attractions in the massive debris field it created. The accident resulted in more than 2,000 pieces of relatively large space junk.
While there are some safety measures being taken, like the Space Surveillance Network run by the military, the sheer amount of stuff already floating in space makes the domino effect of explosions a likely possibility.
Check out this video about the Kessler Syndrome that features Don Kessler himself. And here’s Kessler’s original paper on the subject, titled 'Collision Frequency of Artificial Satellites: The Creation of a Debris Belt'.
Join multiple Tony and Emmy Award-winning actress Judith Light live on Big Think at 2 pm ET on Monday.
Construction of the $500 billion dollar tech city-state of the future is moving ahead.
- The futuristic megacity Neom is being built in Saudi Arabia.
- The city will be fully automated, leading in health, education and quality of life.
- It will feature an artificial moon, cloud seeding, robotic gladiators and flying taxis.
The Red Sea area where Neom will be built:
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Frequent shopping for single items adds to our carbon footprint.
- A new study shows e-commerce sites like Amazon leave larger greenhouse gas footprints than retail stores.
- Ordering online from retail stores has an even smaller footprint than going to the store yourself.
- Greening efforts by major e-commerce sites won't curb wasteful consumer habits. Consolidating online orders can make a difference.
A pile of recycled cardboard sits on the ground at Recology's Recycle Central on January 4, 2018 in San Francisco, California.
Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images<p>A large part of the reason is speed. In a competitive market, pure players use the equation, <em>speed + convenience</em>, to drive adoption. This is especially relevant to the "last mile" GHG footprint: the distance between the distribution center and the consumer.</p><p>Interestingly, the smallest GHG footprint occurs when you order directly from a physical store—even smaller than going there yourself. Pure players, such as Amazon, are the greatest offenders. Variables like geographic location matter; the team looked at shopping in the UK, the US, China, and the Netherlands. </p><p>Sadegh Shahmohammadi, a PhD student at the Netherlands' Radboud University and corresponding author of the paper, <a href="https://www.cnn.com/2020/02/26/tech/greenhouse-gas-emissions-retail/index.html" target="_blank">says</a> the above "pattern holds true in countries where people mostly drive. It really depends on the country and consumer behavior there."</p><p>The researchers write that this year-and-a-half long study pushes back on previous research that claims online shopping to be better in terms of GHG footprints.</p><p style="margin-left: 20px;">"They have, however, compared the GHG emissions per shopping event and did not consider the link between the retail channels and the basket size, which leads to a different conclusion than that of the current study."</p><p>Online retail is where convenience trumps environment: people tend to order one item at a time when shopping on pure player sites, whereas they stock up on multiple items when visiting a store. Consumers will sometimes order a number of separate items over the course of a week rather than making one trip to purchase everything they need. </p><p>While greening efforts by online retailers are important, until a shift in consumer attitude changes, the current carbon footprint will be a hard obstacle to overcome. Amazon is trying to have it both ways—carbon-free and convenience addicted—and the math isn't adding up. If you need to order things, do it online, but try to consolidate your purchases as much as possible.</p><p>--</p><p><em>Stay in touch with Derek on <a href="http://www.twitter.com/derekberes" target="_blank">Twitter</a>, <a href="https://www.facebook.com/DerekBeresdotcom" target="_blank">Facebook</a> and <a href="https://derekberes.substack.com/" target="_blank">Substack</a>. His next book is</em> "<em>Hero's Dose: The Case For Psychedelics in Ritual and Therapy."</em></p>
Building a personal connection with students can counteract some negative side effects of remote learning.
- Not being able to engage with students in-person due to the pandemic has presented several new challenges for educators, both technical and social. Digital tools have changed the way we all think about learning, but George Couros argues that more needs to be done to make up for what has been lost during "emergency remote teaching."
- One interesting way he has seen to bridge that gap and strengthen teacher-student and student-student relationships is through an event called Identity Day. Giving students the opportunity to share something they are passionate about makes them feel more connected and gets them involved in their education.
- "My hope is that we take these skills and these abilities we're developing through this process and we actually become so much better for our kids when we get back to our face-to-face setting," Couros says. He adds that while no one can predict the future, we can all do our part to adapt to it.
Chronic irregular sleep in children was associated with psychotic experiences in adolescence, according to a recent study out of the University of Birmingham's School of Psychology.