Tuesday, June 20, 2023

The Kessler Syndrome

Steve Wozniak and a host of other Silicon Valley luminaries have launched a new company called Privateer, whose mission is to track and map space debris in Earth's orbit.

In 1978 NASA scientist Donald J. Kessler published a paper which argued that if the number of satellites in Low Earth Orbit reached a certain critical level, then even a small collision could create enough debris to cause a chain reaction that would eventually make further space exploration impossible. What has come to be known as the 'Kessler Syndrome' (or 'Kessler Effect') is the estimation that a critical level of space debris will eventually make it impossible to launch new satellites or spacecraft into LEO, as they would be at risk of being damaged or destroyed by the debris.

Steve Wozniak's Privateer Space company has therefore launched an interactive map which maps and visualizes Earth's orbital debris problem. Wayfinder is an interactive map which shows the location of space junk and Earth satellites in near real-time.

Wayfinder joins an ever growing list of space debris maps. A list which includes What Goes Up, the University of Texas' interactive AstriaGraph, and Esri's SatelliteXplorer. Wayfinder's USP in this already crowded market is its 'Crow's Nest' feature. Crow’s Nest is a collision risk assessment tool. Open the Crow's Nest menu in Wayfinder and you can view a list of upcoming possible space debris collisions. 

The Crow's Nest list of possible collisions are calculated using NASA's CARA (Conjunction Assessment Risk Analysis). CARA assesses the risk of collisions between satellites and/or space debris using orbital satellite tracking data, satellite catalog data, and collision probability models. The Crow's Nest list of possible future collisions allows you to zoom in on a time and space where and when a collision might take place, view which objects could be involved and view the probability scores of each possible collision.

You can learn more about the dangers of ever increasing amounts of space debris in Low Earth Orbit in the Financial Times' story map How Space Debris Threatens Modern Life. In this map the Financial Times explores the growing problem of space pollution to life on Earth. 

According to NASA there are around 9,000 tonnes of debris now floating around Earth at speeds of up to 25,000 km an hour. In this scrollytelling visualization the Financial Times maps out the tens of thousands of satellites now in low Earth orbit and visualizes some of the dangers to modern life from the increasing amount of junk accompanying those still active satellites.

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