Planning for the inevitable: a guide to disasters in low Earth orbit

Written by Dan Ceperley, LeoLabs CEO

In the opening credits of the 1998 blockbuster, Armageddon, an asteroid strikes Earth, causing fire to engulf the planet. “It happened before,” Charlton Heston warns, “It will happen again. It’s just a question of when.”

Unlike 99% of this movie, Heston isn’t exactly wrong. Scientists believe an extinction-causing asteroid hit Earth almost 66 million years ago. They also believe that another deadly asteroid strike is possible. That’s why many scientists, including my co-founder at LeoLabs (and former NASA astronaut) Ed Lu, study asteroids and develop protection measures. We got a glimpse into this work during NASA’s Double Asteroid Redirection Test (DART) earlier this year. Lucky for us, it was a success.

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Heston’s iconic phrase is not just applicable to asteroid strikes. Throughout history, the inevitability of disasters, from recurring events like hurricanes to rare events like pandemics, has led us to prepare for them as best we can. I believe disasters in low Earth orbit (LEO) should be approached no differently.

The inevitability of a disaster in low Earth orbit

The traffic in LEO is growing rapidly, particularly in lower altitudes ideal for large constellations, CubeSats, and crewed spaceflight. The sun-synchronous orbits are also a popular destination for earth imaging missions in LEO.

Across LEO, thousands of pieces of space debris reside in clouds of fragments and clusters of massive derelicts. This grim reality means that collisions are not a question of if but when. To prepare for this inevitability, we must understand what the dangers are and the threat level. That’s my job. My primary concern is protecting operational objects in space, like satellite constellations, which have become critical to daily life. That’s why my team and I work tirelessly to not only monitor the risks in space but to also characterize them.

Every industry has its bad days, including space. Rather than ignore them, the best response is to anticipate and prepare for them. Towards this effort, I’ll discuss four types of potential disasters in LEO below, these include:

  1. Operational payload on catalogued object collision
  2. Dead object on dead object collision
  3. Object colliding with lethal, small debris
  4. Operational payload attacked by an adversary

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