Discussions in comments below this answer to What is the biggest satellite constellation in space right now? have touched on risk vs reward and the Kessler Syndrome in the context of full-blown Starlink, and I don't think that that has yet been fully explored here in depth.

For example, the current answer to Would SpaceX's Starlink constellation contribute inordinately to space debris? just refers to SpaceX's application to the FCC.

Question: How much could a full-blown Starlink constellation contribute to a future Kessler scenario? What would be the worst-case scenario?

"Contribute to" doesn't necessarily mean "cause", it could also include "in some way participate in".

Worst case scenarios might include total loss of control or even nefarious co-optive operation (e.g. Dr. Evil takes over the Starlink control center demanding "One Million Dollars!")

This could also be written as a World Building SE question, but I think that Space SE is the right place to review the orbital mechanics as there is already a large body of Q&A here regarding space junk, Kessler, debris fields, rates of deorbit, etc.

I think a reasonable argument could be made that the low deployment altitude of the Starlink constellation mitigates risk even in the worst Dr. Evil scenarios, but then again there are so darn many of them in full-blown Starlink and collisions can throw debris into orbits with much higher apoapsis.


First thing, first. The term “Kessler syndrome” and the concept it describes (uncontrollable chain collisions in space) may be familiar to most in Space SE. It would nevertheless be useful to revisit the publications by D. Kessler. No doubt, there are many who argue that this theory is an alarmist one.

The relevant publications are:

To start the ball rolling and initiate the discussions (that hopefully would result in a consensus to answer the OP’s question), I would like to reproduce here part of the abstract of the 3rd paper:

The intended definition grew out of a 1978 JGR paper predicting that fragments from random collisions between catalogued objects in low Earth orbit would become an important source of small debris beginning in about the year 2000, and that afterwards, “...the debris flux will increase exponentially with time, even though a zero net input may be maintained”. The purpose of this pa- per is to clarify the intended definition of the term, to put the implications into perspective after 30 years of research by the international scientific community, and to discuss what this research may mean to future space operations. The conclusion is reached that while popular use of the term may have exaggerated and distorted the conclusions of the 1978 paper, the result of all research to date confirms that we are now entering a time when the orbital debris environment will increasingly be controlled by random collisions. Without adequate collision avoidance capabilities, control of the future environment requires that we fully implement current mitigation guidelines by not leaving future payloads and rocket bodies in orbit after their useful life. In addition, we will likely be re- quired to return some objects already in orbit.

In addition here is a more recent article from the Scientifc American Space junk removal is not going smoothly

A Space Age “tragedy of the commons” is unfolding right under our nose—or, really, right over our head—and no consensus yet exists on how to stop it.


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