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SpaceX mega constellation raises concerns of increased satellite collisions

The space exploration company has plans to deploy an ambitious network of tens of thousands of internet satellites in low-Earth orbit.
The Associated Press/John Raoux

Story at a glance

  • The project, dubbed Starlink, is aiming to eventually deploy more than 40,000 small satellites into orbit to form a mega constellation.
  • NASA sent a letter to the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) last week noting the constellation could increase risk of collisions and limit launch windows for separate missions.
  • NASA isn’t opposed to SpaceX receiving authorization to launch tens of thousands of satellites, but said it wants to ensure deployment of the system is “conducted prudently” in a way that supports safety and long-term sustainability of the space environment.

NASA is raising concerns that the Starlink satellite project developed by Elon Musk’s SpaceX will essentially create overcrowded highways in space that could lead to collisions between objects in low-Earth orbit. 

Starlink aims to eventually deploy more than 40,000 small satellites into orbit to form a mega constellation capable of providing broadband internet service all over the world, including in remote and underserved locations. 

The service could also be key tp providing service when natural disasters disrupt communication here on Earth. 

SpaceX has carried out dozens of missions since 2019, utilizing its reusable rocket technology to send thousands of Starlink satellites into space. 

Just fewer than 2,000 operational satellites are currently orbiting Earth, and the standard Starlink internet service went live in October 2020. Starlink now has more than 145,000 users in about 25 countries around the globe. 

In a letter to the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) last week, NASA revealed its concerns about SpaceX’s proposal to put another 30,000 satellites into orbit. Besides noting the possibility of collisions, it said adding more satellites could make it more difficult to do other missions in space. 


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The space agency specifically said it has “concerns with the potential for a significant increase in the frequency of conjunction events and possible impacts to NASA’s human spaceflight missions.” 

A conjunction refers to when two satellites or a satellite and a piece of debris are estimated to pass near each other. 

NASA noted there are about 25,000 total objects being tracked on-orbit and about 6,100 below 600 kilometers. The agency said SpaceX’s expansion would “more than double the number of tracked objects in orbit and increase the number of objects below 600 km over five-fold.” 

“An increase of this magnitude into these confided altitude bands inherently brings additional risk of debris-generating collision events based on the number of objects alone. NASA anticipates current and planned science missions, as well as human space flight operations will see an increase in conjunctions.” 

NASA questioned whether the satellites’ automated collision avoidance system will scale to the larger system and pushed back against SpaceX’s claim there is “zero risk” of a Starlink satellite colliding with another object due to the satellites’ maneuverability. The agency was also concerned with how Starlink’s collision avoidance capabilities would behave around separate constellations that have their own unique avoidance systems. 

NASA isn’t opposed to SpaceX receiving authorization to launch tens of thousands of satellites, but said it wants to ensure deployment of the system is “conducted prudently” in a way that supports safety and long-term sustainability of the space environment. 

István Lőrincz, co-founder of Morpheus Space, a company that manufacturers propulsion systems for satellites and aims to accelerate the growth of the space industry in a sustainable way, said the industry is facing two challenges: how to minimize the risk of collisions and manage one in the event it happens.

“The solution for minimizing the risk is implementing a global space traffic management system,” Lőrincz told Changing America. 

“It’s not easy, especially because it is an international problem. If one country decides to adopt certain standards, rules and laws, another country might not, so how do you coordinate these efforts…it’s a difficult challenge that we need to work out,” he said. 

Lőrincz said many countries are also putting hundreds of millions of dollars in funding to find ways to clean space debris left over from collisions, noting the U.S. government’s Orbital Prime project, which is tasked with the mission of incentivizing the industry to develop solutions for orbiting debris. 

Lőrincz said some collisions in the future may be unavoidable, but he emphasized SpaceX’s ambitious Starlink constellation is “very much sustainable.” 

“They would not do something so reckless and not think about being able to avoid collisions or being able to allow launches to happen. That is not something that actually is a danger right now,” he said. 

“Every SpaceX satellite has a propulsion system. They are implementing autonomy on their satellites to handle the conjunctions at scale.”

NASA in its letter also pointed out how the existing constellation has become a headache for astronomers, as satellites above the orbital range of Hubble have already caused disruptive light streaks in about 8 percent of the telescope’s images. A recent study found more than 5,300 light streaks from Starlink satellites were captured in photos taken by the Zwicky Transient Facility at the Palomar Observatory near San Diego between November 2019 and September 2021, an increase from less than 0.5 percent to 18 percent over that time period. 

Lőrincz noted the issue is miniscule when compared to the exploding growth of the space industry. 

“It’s not a big thing to write an algorithm to match satellite orbits and expectations for when a satellite flies over your telescope and filter it out. It’s not an impossible task.”

SpaceX did not immediately respond to Changing America’s request for comment. 


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