I want to render impractical the deployment of satellites by exploiting the Kessler syndrome.

Why, you ask? Maybe I'm an evil overlord and I don't want those pesky satellites flying over my lair. Maybe I'm an alien in disguise and I want to disrupt comms and GPS as a preparation of an incoming invasion. Maybe I just want to do it for the lulz. The reason does not matter.

Now, I wonder what is the most efficient way to do it?

The wikipedia article on Kessler syndrome suggests that a good starting point is blowing up the Envisat.

For the purpose of this question, let's assume current level of technology, that I already have a small number of satellites in orbit and I have the technical and financial means to get more of them in space. Also, according to my understanding, sooner or later the orbiting debris will be pulled away from orbit, so let's assume that I want the debris field to last at least 200 years.

Bonus points if you can provide a low budget/low tech solution and/or can render inaccessible all orbit altitudes.

EDIT: I dont believe that my question is a duplicate of this one, because my goal is not to prevent launches, but to prevent objects from orbiting for a significant amount of time. So I don't mind if ICBMs, standard missiles, rockets and planes fly as long as they stay below LEO or can't maintain their orbit. Also,some comments highlighted the fact that the debris field will decay over time and that's a good point; so I'll offer a variation on the question (I'm kinda new here and I don't know if this is allowed, please let me know): Can I simply destroy or render unusable all current orbiting satellites by means of Kessler syndrome?

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    $\begingroup$ Odd. I thought this was a duplicate, but it seems almost every other question is about how to deal with Kessler syndrome, not how best to cause it. +1. $\endgroup$
    – Joe Bloggs
    Commented May 20, 2019 at 18:03
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    $\begingroup$ P.S: Muahahahaha. $\endgroup$
    – Joe Bloggs
    Commented May 20, 2019 at 18:03
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    $\begingroup$ The most efficient way to prevent Earth from launching spacecraft is not Kessler syndrome at all. It is to 1) Bribe or blackmail launchpad workers to sabotage their own launches, and 2) Foment states to shoot down each others' few successful launches. This way, your own formidable space-weaponry can remain undetected and rarely used...and won't itself fall prey to errant debris. $\endgroup$
    – user535733
    Commented May 20, 2019 at 18:17
  • $\begingroup$ Possible duplicate of Could deliberately induced Kessler Syndrome stop ICBMs? $\endgroup$
    – kingledion
    Commented May 20, 2019 at 18:27
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    $\begingroup$ You can’t have a debris field that prevents all launches for 200 years, unless you are continually replenishing it. Because the debris in low orbits will decay and burn up much faster than that, and so those low orbits will become available for launches. $\endgroup$
    – Mike Scott
    Commented May 20, 2019 at 18:31

3 Answers 3


You can't stop space travel with Kessler Syndroome.

Kessler syndrome only disables low earth orbit. Low earth orbit is quite clustered, and easy to disable. Medium or long ranged satellites could still orbit, and space ships could still travel upwards. The fragments are a long term risk to any space ships orbiting, not an immediate danger. Only a quarter of satellites are in low earth orbit. Most are in geostationary orbit.

You can stop it with a laser broom and Kessler Syndrome.

One popular suggestion for clearing the earth orbit is what's called the laser broom. A megawatt laser is used to alter the orbit of an object by producing a jet of ablated material. The normal intention for this is of course to remove threats to earth. It could instead be used to make objects collide.

So, you can use your large laser to make as many satellites collide as possible. This should produce a large debris field. You need ground monitoring stations to track this debris. If anyone attempts to set up a satellite you can use the laser broom to sweep some debris into them. This doesn't require you to go into space, and is much more cost effective than other options.

  • $\begingroup$ I've selected this one as answer because I never thought about the concept of laser broom and i find the name quite amusing. $\endgroup$
    – Zizzo
    Commented May 26, 2019 at 12:39

This is just going to be a Fermi estimate, because this seems like a fun question to deal with. Let's take a look at the lowest orbital plane around the Earth, Low Earth Orbit. It's 2,000 km above the surface, and the radius of the Earth is 6,000 km. The area is 4*pi*r^2, or 4.5 * 10^8 or 450,000,000 square kilometers. This isn't the full story, because any given object within LEO orbits, crossing a circumference of about 38,000 kilometers.

Now, I can't really use real world data to help calculate, because real world satellites are clustered around certain paths, and you want the entire orbit saturated to the point where no satellites can be safely put in orbit.

If we assigned each orbit the equivalent path of 38,000 kilometers, and assume they can deal with the half a klick on either side of them due to orbit variance, than a simple calculation of 450,000,000/38,000 suggests you would need a mere 12,000 satellites. Of course, you would need to constantly launch more satellites as they'd knock themselves out of orbit. If you want more cluster than one single satellite half a klick away once a year, than adjust the 12,000 number as necessary.

But like I said at the start, this is just a rough Fermi estimation. Currently, we've got around 2,000 satellites, and apparently we're getting woried, so the 12,000 number seems like a good benchmark. Of course, this is for LEO only, and doesn't stop launches, just stable orbits.

Bonus point attempt: According to these numbers, MEO is 36,000 and GEO is 72,000. And the easiest way to do this ... your main problem seems to be getting them into orbit, so just firing them from earth might help, though you'll need to be able to make course corrections in-path. Something akin to Jules Verne's From the Earth to the Moon, where they use a 1,000-foot cannon. So, a railgun-missile launcher? That sounds like an okay way to do it.

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    $\begingroup$ +1 for reasonable looking estimate! I think the asker should take note that this was done for a specific altitude (e.g. a "shell" of debris all at the same altitude). Collisions will affect nearby altitudes and satellites at LEO will drop in altitude as time goes on, but for all this effort what's to stop someone from just putting satellites above or below your debris shell? $\endgroup$
    – ben
    Commented May 20, 2019 at 18:46
  • $\begingroup$ It'd have to be above, and the answer is nothing, really. But the use of satellites (spying, communication, etc.) decay a bit as they get higher in orbit. $\endgroup$
    – Halfthawed
    Commented May 20, 2019 at 18:47
  • $\begingroup$ Fair. I guess my point is you've shown what would be roughly necessary to make this doable (you answered the question), but it sure doesn't look efficient to me. $\endgroup$
    – ben
    Commented May 20, 2019 at 18:50
  • $\begingroup$ There is another orbit at 2000.5 k m and another at 1999.5. And another at 2001.0. And another at 1999.0. Etc. There is an orbit at 0 degrees inclination and one at 1 degree and one at minus 1 degree. Etc. $\endgroup$
    – AlexP
    Commented May 20, 2019 at 20:11
  • $\begingroup$ Yup. This is for a shell. It'd probably be good for a klick higher and a klick below, and possibly a few hundred below that thanks to falling debris. $\endgroup$
    – Halfthawed
    Commented May 20, 2019 at 20:26

May I suggest this is impractical

It's impractical for the same basic reason that you can't trust a freeway full of cars to guarantee a 50-car pile up during every rush hour.

  • Yes, there are certainly more than enough cars on the freeway to fall into the Kessler Syndrome kind of statistic.

  • True, many cars (but only many) are driven by competent drivers who can be trusted to react in a reasonable manner to the growing chaos.

  • True, unlike space, freeways only move in one direction (not three).

But the problem persists — and yet almost never happens.

The Kessler Syndrome is a statistical analysis. There never has been and never will be a guarantee of any catastrophe. You could lob Buicks into LEO hourly for a century and, despite cluttering up LEO something awful, all you have is a statistical chance of a cascade failure that may never happen. In fact, let's look at a terrestrial cascade failure.

Let's consider forest fires

Forest fires are the real-life epitome of the Kessler Syndrome. Too many trees in close proximity that get older and dryer with every passing year just waiting for that one random lightning bolt1 to start the cascade failure. You betcha! Forest fires happen every year! But when was the last time you saw the entire forest burn down? It almost never happens. In fact, keeping everything out of LEO via Kessler Syndrome is like expecting the entirety of Canada to burn to the ground in one huge forest fire. It could statistically happen — but it doesn't. Why?

  • Mother Nature stops them by hosting areas without fuel. Like deserts and lakes.

  • Humanity stops them by creating unnatural areas without fuel, like large, paved roads and fire breaks.

  • Both humanity and Mother Nature can stop forest fires by dowsing everything with water (or some synthetic equivalent).

How does this relate to space? In the immortal words of Douglas Adams, "Space is big. Really big. You just won't believe how vastly, hugely, mind-bogglingly big it is. I mean, you may think it's a long way down the road to the chemist, but that's just peanuts to space." There's a lot of dead, "fueless" space out there. Yes, the statistics say there's a growing problem, but that's just statistics.

  • In reality, there's a whole lot of nothing where debris can harmlessly exist.

  • Large satellites must be hit by high-energy objects or they're more likely to rob the process of energy than they are add to it. That's one of the reasons freeway pile-ups come to a stop. With each collision there's less energy to cause the next collision (and more time for motorists to realize what's going on).

  • And that last bit is important, just like flying planes full of water and motorists realizing something in front of them is more important than the text they're trying to write, satellites with modern tech have the ability to move out of the way. Older satellites have less of this ability. No, it's not perfect — but neither are airplanes full of water or attentive motorists.

And yet there aren't daily 50-car pile-ups on congested freeways.

Are my metaphors perfect? Absolutely not! But they make a point. The effort you would need to put into causing and sustaining the Kessler Syndrome is so much greater than the benefit that it isn't worth pursuing.

It would be cheaper to fire missiles at every launch than it would be to trust in and maintain the Kessler Syndrome.

Keep in mind, Kessler proposed his problem in 1978 — and despite an increase in satellite launches, it hasn't happened yet.

Yeah, but I really, really, really want to use the Kessler Syndrome to keep satellites out of orbit! What can I do?

Use the modern equivalent of a flak cannon. Your Evil Overlord sends up a constant flow of disposable satellites with hundreds or (preferably) thousands of #10 cans full of 1" ball bearings, C4, and a timer. The cans are sent out spherically from the satellite for maximum spread. Like deadly fireworks, they'd send their cargo of ball bearings (quite literally quadrillions of them) into space! They'd cause havoc for as long as you keep sending up satellites — and with each destroyed satellite, you add to the mahem!2

1Or, in the case of your Evil Overlord, that one deliberate match thrown by a stupid teenager who thinks the result would be really funny.

2And to top it all off, if you're really lucky, you'd have a constant light show in the sky as bazzillions of 1" ball bearings burn up in the atmosphere. Glitter! So much glitter!

  • $\begingroup$ +1 for the Douglas Adams quote and for the concept of "frag satellites" $\endgroup$
    – Zizzo
    Commented May 26, 2019 at 12:43
  • $\begingroup$ This is a great explanation. Do you feel differently in today's day and age with all of the Starlink satellites going up now? $\endgroup$
    – FontFamily
    Commented Jan 7, 2022 at 1:49
  • $\begingroup$ @FontFamily Nope. "You could lob Buicks into LEO hourly for a century and, despite cluttering up LEO something awful, all you have is a statistical chance of a cascade failure that may never happen." That's 876,000 buicks vs. only 6,542 satellites as of 1/1/2021. Remember that Douglas Adams quote and realize that if our galaxy hasn't destroyed itself via the Kessler Syndrome, it'll take next to forever to pack our orbit with enough stuff to change the statistics. (IMO.) $\endgroup$
    – JBH
    Commented Jan 7, 2022 at 11:45

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