astronaut fan He stared at the beautiful looming expanse of Earth that could only be seen from space. It’s a stunningly peaceful moment – until a cloud of space debris spoils the view and sends him and another astronaut into a dangerous flip.
When the movie gravity – Now streaming on HBO Max – Back in 2013, the scientific phenomenon of Kessler syndrome has largely been a topic of discussion among astronomers and other space experts. But with space traffic becoming more and more congested due to the accumulation of space waste and live satellites, it is becoming a phenomenon that increasingly worries the masses. You don’t need to be an astronaut to worry about an out-of-control space junk floating in Earth’s orbit.
But what is Kessler syndrome, how is it dangerous for humans, and what is it? gravityIs portraying this space phenomenon scientifically accurate?
According to Harvard astrophysicist Jonathan McDowell, Gravity is nearly as wrong as it does right about this complex space phenomenon.
“gravity It was a fun movie,” McDowell told Inverse. “There was a lot I liked about it. And there was a lot to be achieved.”
Real Science he inverse Series that reveal the real (and fake) science behind your favorite movies and TV shows.
What is Kessler syndrome?
in a gravity, astronauts Ryan Stone (Sandra Bullock) and Matt Kowalski (George Clooney), work in space outside the International Space Station. They’re busy cracking jokes and installing a plaque on the Hubble Space Telescope when they receive an urgent warning from NASA to cancel the mission.
Apparently, the Russians hit one of their spy satellites, causing a cloud of debris to form rapidly approaching the International Space Station.
As NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston (often referred to as “Houston” by the space community) reported in the film: “Debris from the missile strike caused a chain reaction, hitting other satellites and creating new debris, and it traveled faster than High velocity bullet.
What Houston describes here is, essentially, the real-life dangerous phenomenon of Kessler syndrome.
“Turns everything in space into scraps of paper.”
Kessler syndrome “is the idea that you can have a chain reaction of satellite collisions that can render space unusable,” McDowell says.
Here’s how it works. Currently, thousands of fast-moving satellites orbit the Earth. One large satellite collides with another, forming thousands of tiny pieces of debris moving at thousands of miles per hour.
“If those pieces of debris collide with other satellites and destroy them, you can escape [reaction] This basically turns everything in space into scraps of paper,” McDowell says.
This is basically what happens in the movie gravity – although with a lot more haste and dramatic flair than it might happen in real life.
is being gravityA realistic depiction of Kessler syndrome?
Just minutes after they received the warning from Houston, the International Space Station is bombarded with space debris.
Scientists see a few small pieces of debris before the entire debris cloud – moving at 20,000 miles per hour – hits its vicinity. One of their team members gets hit by debris, while Stone is literally tossed into space after the wreckage slams into the arm of the space station holding her high.
It’s a breathtaking sight, but is it scientifically accurate? not exactly.
McDowell says astronauts who make external repairs to the International Space Station are at risk of hitting the orbiting space debris. The Department of Defense tracks larger space debris and coordinates with NASA’s Orbital Debris Program Office, but there are smaller pieces of debris that can be fatal to astronauts.
But McDowell’s biggest pain is how The film depicts Kessler syndrome.
“The main difference between real and film Kessler syndrome is that it runs much slower,” McDowell says.
In the movie, “It’s half an hour, and all of a sudden, everything is ripped apart in space.” In real life, “it takes decades,” according to McDowell.
“Kessler syndrome is a serious but slow-burning threat.”
In the actual Kessler syndrome scenario, two satellites collide, resulting in debris that eventually hits another satellite. This triggers a chain reaction and a debris cloud forms. But this process takes years – a much longer time frame than the 1 hour 31 minute run time gravity.
“The first satellites collided with each other, and years later, some debris from that satellite collided with another satellite, and the total amount of debris slowly increased,” McDowell adds.
But it was difficult to make a movie that showed Kessler syndrome as it happens in real life. Like climate change, Kessler syndrome is a serious but slow-burning threat, gradually accumulating dangerous amounts of debris over time.
“[Gravity] Make it more tangible for the average person, because we can respond better to an immediate threat than to a slow one,” says McDowell.
Is Kessler syndrome a serious threat?
In short: yes. gravityThe company’s premise is very similar to a real satellite collision that occurred in November 2021 when Russia tested an anti-satellite weapon against a dead satellite. This created thousands of pieces of space debris that “push us so far, much further down the hill of this rolling ridge” of Kessler syndrome, according to McDowell.
There have been documented cases of satellite collision in the past 15 years, resulting in the gradual accumulation of space debris which is likely to cause the chain reaction of Kessler syndrome.
Just last week, the US Space Force reported debris from a Russian satellite that hit a Chinese satellite in March 2021, making it the fifth accidental collision between space-tracked objects.
as inverse According to reports, there are about 40,000 space objects of at least 10 centimeters in length being tracked in orbit, and only 5,000 are active satellites, which means that the rest are likely space debris. There are probably millions of smaller pieces of debris that NASA can’t keep track of.
But it’s not just past collisions or existing space debris that increases the likelihood of Kessler syndrome. Increased space traffic is also a looming threat.
Starlink — SpaceX’s satellite internet service that promises high-speed broadband to anywhere in the world with clear sky access — plans to launch 100,000 satellites in the coming years. According to McDowell, this would increase the likelihood of collisions.
“The collision rate is growing as the number of satellites increases,” he says. “If you had 10 times as many satellites, you would have 100 times as many collisions.”
“Increased traffic in space is also a looming threat.”
Kessler syndrome isn’t just a threat to astronauts working on the International Space Station, but to the thousands of satellites that maintain vital communications systems and weather forecasts.
“Our worst threat is to astronauts,” McDowell says, “but you also don’t want to lose out on the billions’ worth of devices that rely on the internet, our weather forecasts, or climate change studies.”
Fortunately, it appears that the newly launched James Webb Space Telescope will be far enough away that it is not threatened by most human-made space junk, so at least one vital space object may be saved from Kessler syndrome.
According to McDowell, scientists are working on developing methods for getting rid of space debris, such as deploying trucks to remove space debris, very similar to the concept laid out in the 2021 Netflix movie. space brooms. These are short-term goals, but they are not yet a reality.
in some ways, gravity It’s more relevant now than it was when it was released in 2013. Even if it’s not entirely scientifically accurate, it’s still worth watching to remind us how little we humans have control over space, even over all our trash, says McDowell.
“The fact that space is much larger and more crowded, not just in terms of debris, but in terms of active satellites, makes these accidents even more dangerous.”
gravity Now streaming on HBO Max.