SpaceXThe Starlink satellites have returned to lower Earth orbit, experts told Insider.
- There are apparently 1,300 Starlink satellites in lower orbit and 300 other entities.
- “We are not yet at the end of the world but it is a serious situation”, another
spacesaid the researcher.
SpaceX rapidly deploys its Starlink
By rapidly increasing the number of satellites in orbit, space industry experts estimate
SpaceX’s Starlink has orbiting around 1,300 satellites and predicts a mega-constellation of up to 42,000 spacecraft by mid-2027. In October, Starlink launched its Better Than Nothing beta test in the northern United States for $ 99 per month, plus $ 499 for the kit. It now operates in more than six countries and has more than 10,000 users worldwide.
Starlink has previously said that its satellites can avoid collisions using an ion drive, which allows it to dodge other objects in orbit. But if satellite communications or operations fail in orbit, they become dangers to space traffic.
In the lower low Earth orbit (LEO), Starlink satellites “completely dominate the population of space objects,” Jonathan McDowell, an astronomer at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics, told Insider on Tuesday.
He said there were around 300 other satellites in the lower LEO, including the International Space Station, compared to the 1,300 Starlink satellites.
“There comes a time when so many of them are maneuvering all the time that it’s a traffic hazard,” McDowell said, adding that the danger can result in a massive collision, creating waste. Each satellite travels at 18,000 miles per hour and all go in different directions, according to McDowell. If they shatter, it sends hypersonic shock waves through the satellites and shatters them into thousands of shell fragments which then form a shell around Earth, he said.
It becomes a threat to other space users and an obstacle for astronomers observing the sky.
McDowell calculated in November that 2.5% of Starlink satellites may have failed in orbit. That may not look bad in the grand scheme of things. But if this problem persists, the entire planned constellation of SpaceX could produce more than 1,000 dead satellites.
10,000 satellites expected to be launched over the next decade
John Auburn, managing director of Astroscale UK, a Tokyo-based orbital debris removal company, told a press briefing on March 17 that more than 10,000 satellites are expected to be launched over the next 10 years.
McDowell said the satellite companies could have “nasty surprises” if they put so many satellites into orbit. He said companies should stop launching satellites when the amount reaches 1,000 and monitor them for a while to see if any issues arise, such as design flaws.
There could be a “complete disaster” on the horizon, McDowell said.
But that’s not all bad news. Daniel Oltrogge, director of the Center for Space Standards and Innovation, told Insider that it pays off for Starlink satellites to be in the lower LEO because they can be removed more quickly in the event of a failure. Oltrogge said the space waste issue was not a blame game. All space users, including governments and commercial and civilian companies, have all contributed to this image of space debris today, he said.
There are many issues to be addressed, Oltrogge said, including satellite operators complying with guidelines that help minimize the risk of collision, improving spatial situational awareness and spacecraft design, and interchange more data between satellite companies.
But if we don’t address the space debris crisis at a global level, rather than at an operator level, “we risk missing out on environmental degradation,” according to Oltrogge.
“We’re not at the end of the world yet,” said Oltrogge. “But it is a serious situation that deserves careful consideration.”
Why SpaceX is one of the best satellite launchers
Compared to other private commercial satellite companies, SpaceX is a big plus. Since May 2019, there have been 23 stunning Starlink launches via SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rocket. McDowell believes the company’s acceleration may be due to its CEO. “Elon doesn’t have to answer a lot of people, he can make decisions efficiently, he doesn’t have to dive in and get permission,” he said.
On top of that, it has its own rockets to launch the satellites into orbit, McDowell said. This saves him time and money as he does not have to negotiate another launch contract. The fact that the rockets are reusable – the last Falcon 9 booster in Wednesday’s mission was used six times – also makes launching satellites inexpensive for SpaceX.
“It’s an advantage that other companies don’t have,” McDowell said.