Space Debris
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"Did anyone see what that was?"

Malcom Reynolds (Joss Whedon) Firefly

Basic Information

Space Debris or Orbital Space Junk is a navigational hazard that may one day soon cause massive space disasters and potentially trap humanity on the Earth. Earth Orbit is full of jettisoned fuel tanks and booster rockets, tools dropped during space walks, satellites that have stopped working but not dropped out of orbit yet, leaked fluids that froze in the cold of space, garbage bags dumped by space stations, etc.

World space agencies track tens of thousands of such objects. They whip around the Earth at orbital speeds, so fast that even a stray paint chip could potentially punch a hole through the side of a spacecraft or cause a satellite's batteries (or worse, nuclear reactor) to explode.

Explosions are particularly bad because they turn existing objects into clouds of debris, and send those clouds blasting off on new trajectories that threaten other objects in space. One day, this shotgun effect may turn into a chain reaction that fills our skies with so much debris that we can no longer safely launch new rockets. This unfortunate scenario is sometimes called Kessler Syndrome. It would be the end of space exploration for decades or possibly centuries, but it would also bring a sudden halt to GPS, spy satellites, satellite phones and other communications technologies that modern civilization relies upon.

Trying to get out ahead of this problem, various governments and scientific thinktanks are developing ways to remove such debris from orbit. Satellites and drones that use nets, harpoons and dragsails, or lasers to destroy or de-orbit debris, including one project called the laserbroom.

Technically, of course, space debris doesn't have to be orbital - it could, in fact, be hanging about almost anywhere (or worse still, moving at a ridiculous speed whilst being virtually undetectable) waiting for you to fly into it … it's just that all of our current experience (with the exception of a few probes) lies in manufacturing the orbital kind. Doubtless we'll eventually get around to leaving some between Earth and Mars, and some other destinations as well … finding some, on the other hand, would be a lot more noteworthy…

See Also:


3. Astrum video asks "Are We Too Late To Avoid Kessler Syndrome?"

Game and Story Use

  • Part of post-apocalyptic decay may be debris clouds going out of control in outer space. So a game set After The End may feature frequent irregular lights in the sky, which may be interpreted as a bad omen instead of being known for the deorbiting of space junk that it is.
  • Even without the apocalypse, the Prison Earth scenario in the near future can make for very bleak Dystopia. We haven't destroyed ourselves, but we have penned ourselves in, and seen a partial collapse of technologies that we'd grown to depend upon.
  • Any game set in space may see this as a harrowing bit of unexpected danger. If your session is running slow, and your game gritty enough on Mohs Scale Of Science Fiction Hardness, you can have some random tiny bit of junk suddenly spice up the adventure with atmospheric depressurization and other peril. Note that if handled realistically and the PCs aren't prepared for it, this may be a quick TPK, so make sure you've put a little advance thought into making it tense and fun, rather than campaign-ending.
  • Also makes good interstellar terrain when put around planets the PCs are visiting (or drifting into a major spacelane) in a space opera. If you're chasing some macguffin (or trying to infiltrate the pirate cove in space), it may be on a devastated world with a nigh-impenetrable cloud of orbital debris. This will require some careful piloting rolls, and maybe a few gunnery rolls to vaporize or deflect bits that are headed straight at the PC's spaceship.
    • The sites of major naval battles could be particularly fun, being host to a slowly expanding cloud of debris - not to mention errant kinetic projectiles and UXO. And possibly dormant automated weapons. At least at places like Ironbottom Sound, Jutland and the Suriago Strait most of the debris sank…
      • This should make "amphibious" operations in space even less popular - apart from debris caused by any kind of combat, just the landing operation has the potential to generate a lot of flying crap - which may then multiply as it comes back around and hits the packed mass of landing ships.
    • In settings where spaceship shields are a thing, the PCs may just try to muscle through. So again, it would be a good idea for the GM to think ahead to know what happens if they do, and how to make that fun rather than gamebreaking.
      • Perhaps you could prompt the PCs to make a sensor or science roll to determine the damage that the debris can do to them, so they can eyeball how likely they are to survive a collision.
    • Precursors may have built something around a planet or star that started as a dyson swarm but deteriorated into a field of space debris. The point of an adventure could well be exploring a mysterious cloud of debris to determine what it is, and what condition it is in. The dangers of the debris field might be compounded by an infestation of a swarm of hostile Von Neuman Probes or a cloud of Grey Goo.
    • Could be archaeologically interesting as well - especially in a setting where there is little or no contact with other spacefaring civilisations, the presence of orbital wreckage may raise a lot of questions.
  • While dangerous, the space junk could also be a sort of treasure. At the very least it's got rare elements and metal that could be salvaged and recycled. Depending on the origin of the junk and current state of the civilization doing the salvaging, it may even have lost technology to harvest.
  • The space debris itself could be the setting. Some sort of space hulk or wreckage of a spacecraft or stellar megastructure might still have habitable sections, but be drifting in the interstellar void (rather than orbiting a planet). If it was the wreckage of a generation ship, the characters may be locals who have limited understanding of what lays beyond, or the dire status of their "world".
  • Any kind of spacefaring civilisation is likely to need to come to terms with this, presumably having some kind of clean up service to avoid busy routes becoming dangerous … and likely laws restricting the ability of ships to dump gash over the side. Enforcement of anti-dumping laws may be a sign of how well run a system is (much as the maritime equivalents are at the moment - a harbour full of floating gash bags is not a good sign for how things are done locally).
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