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Closing the door to space

1 September 2021

Back in 1957, the Russians broke new ground by launching the world's first artificial satellite, in the form of Sputnik.

This little shiny sphere orbited the earth, transmitting a simple interrupted carrier that marked a turning point in man's use of the heavens and opened the door to technologies that we take for granted today.

Now, more than 60 years later, the heavens are filled with satellites and we have come to rely heavily on the services they provide. GPS, communications, weather observations, pictures of distant galaxies, covert military surveilance... the list seems almost endless.

However, the era of the satellite may be about to come crashing down around our ears, almost literally.

One potential problem is the effect that a CME (coronal mass ejection) might have on all these fragile and vulnerable bits of electronics that are spinning around above the protection of the earth's atmosphere.

It's guaranteed that sooner or later such a CME will wreak havoc in the heavens and knock out many of these birds; some temporarily, others permanently.

However, there is a bigger danger, a much bigger danger; and it's one that grows by the day.

I am talking about the Kessler Syndrome, something akin to the chain reaction that takes place during nuclear fission.

If recent events are anything to go by, we're already teetering on the edge of this runaway chain reaction and it could be Elon Musk's StarLink satellites that push us over the edge.

Just a few months ago, a Chinese satellite collided with a piece of Russian space-junk and that collision created a whole bunch of extra projectiles, each of which poses a further danger to other orbiting devices. Every time such a collision occurs we are pushed just a little closer to the Kessler Syndrome becoming a reality.

To see how the StarLink satellites will play a role in this one only has to realise that even though there are only around 1,700 of these devices in orbit right now, they are already responsible for over half the near misses in orbital space. Now imagine how conflicted things will be once all planned 42,000 units are streaking across the skies over our heads.

YouTuber Anton Petrov explains things quite well:

There is now concern that StarLink may be a very, very bad idea, not only because it's causing problems for ground-based astronomical obervations but more importantly because it's very likely to be the catalyst for a catastrophic Kessler Syndrome explosion of space junk. In fact things could get so bad that we effectively end up losing reliable access to space itself, something that could even affect our ability to send probes to other planets.

Then, of course, there's the fact that virtually every satellite in the affected orbital zones would be rendered useless, torn apart by the shrapnel generated by countless collisions, which in turn create countless more.

We may have reached "peak sapce utilisation" already. Once the Kessler Syndrome starts, there is no way to stop it and no way to clear the heavens afterwards so as to allow new satellites to replace those that are destroyed.

However, as I think we've conclusively seen many, many times before -- money talks and politicians are seldom guided by the sensible science of the day. There is far more to be had (by greedy politicians) by listening to the well-funded lobbyists and pandering to the world's billionaires with their crazy plans.

Get used to using a map again... GPS, satellite TV and reliable weather prediction as we know it could be gone by Christmas (although chances are we have a few years left).

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