NASA has already warned that the large amount of space junk around our planet is growing beyond our control, but now a team of Russian scientists has cited another potentially unforeseen consequence of that debris: War.
Scientists estimate that anywhere from 500,000 to 600,000 pieces of human-made space debris between 0.4 and 4 inches in size are currently orbiting the Earth and travelling at speeds over 17,000 miles per hour.
If one of those pieces smashed into a military satellite it “may provoke political or even armed conflict between space-faring nations,” Vitaly Adushkin, a researcher for the Institute of Geosphere Dynamics at the Russian Academy of Sciences, reported in a paper set to be published in the peer-reviewed journal Acta Astronautica, which is sponsored by the International Academy of Astronautics.
Say, for example, that a satellite was destroyed or significantly damaged in orbit — something that a 4-inch hunk of space junk could easily do travelling at speeds of 17,500 miles per hour, Adushkin reported. (Even smaller pieces no bigger than size of a pea could cause enough damage to the satellite that it would no longer operate correctly, he notes.)
It would be difficult for anyone to determine whether the event was accidental or deliberate.
This lack of immediate proof could lead to false accusations, heated arguments and, eventually, war, according to Adushkin and his colleagues.
A politically dangerous dilemma
In the report, the Adushkin said that there have already been repeated “sudden failures” of military spacecraft in the last two decades that cannot be explained.
“So, there are two possible explanations,” they wrote. The first is “unregistered collisions with space objects. The second is “machinations’ [deliberate action] of the space adversary.” They add, “this is a politically dangerous dilemma.”
But these mysterious failures in the past aren’t what concerns Adushkin most.
It’s a future threat of what experts call the cascade effect that has Adushkin and other scientists around the world extremely concerned.
The Kessler Syndrome
In 1978, American astrophysicist Donald Kessler predicted that the amount of space debris around Earth would begin to grow exponentially after the turn of the millennium.
Kessler ‘s predictions rely on the fact that over time, space junk accumulates. We leave most of our defunct satellites in space, and when meteors and other man-made space debris slam into them, you get a cascade of debris.
The cascade effect — also known as the Kessler Syndrome — refers to a critical point wherein the density of space junk grows so large that a single collision could set off a domino effect of increasingly more collisions.
For Kessler, this is a problem because it would “create small debris faster than it can be removed,” Kessler said last year. And this cloud of junk could eventually make missions to space too dangerous.
For Adushkin, this would exacerbate the issue of identifying what, or who, could be behind broken satellites.
So far, the US and Russian Space Surveillance Systems have catalogued 170,000 pieces of large space debris (between 4 and 8 inches wide) and are currently tracking them to prevent anymore dilemmas like the ones Adushkin and his colleagues cite in their paper.
But it’s not just the large objects that concern Adushkin, who reported that even small objects (less than 1/3 of an inch) could damage satellites to the point they can’t function properly.
Using mathematical models, Adushkin and his colleagues calculated what the situtation will be like in 200 years if we continue to leave satellites in space and make no effort to clean up the mess. They estimate we’ll have:
- 1.5 times more fragments greater than 8 inches across
- 3.2 times more fragments between 4 and 8 inches across
- 13-20 times more smaller-sized fragments less than 4 inches across
“The number of small-size, non-catalogued objects will grow exponentially in mutual collisions,” the researchers reported.
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