The National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) has raised concerns about SpaceX’s plans to put more than 30,000 Starlink satellites into orbit to create its satellite internet system.
To put that into perspective, Sputnik was launched 65 years ago and there are less than 3,000 functioning satellites orbiting the Earth. NASA questions whether SpaceX’s automated collision avoidance system would be effective given the dramatic increase of satellites that would be in orbit.
While SpaceX claims there is “zero risk” of its Starlink satellites colliding with other satellites or spacecraft, NASA sees that calculation as dangerously misguided.
As proof that NASA is right, in 2019, there was a potential collision (the risk was 10 times higher than the threshold requiring a collision avoidance maneuver) involving a Starlink satellite. SpaceX did nothing to avoid the collision with a European Space Agency (“ESA”) satellite. So it was left to the ESA to avoid the collision.
SpaceX blamed its failure to take any action or even respond to the possible collision on an email snafu. That doesn’t instill confidence.
Elon Musk has made headlines with Tesla electric cars, SpaceX’s Falcon rockets and SpaceX’s Starlink satellite internet service. But there has been a consistent question about safety and taking short cuts.
Problems and collisions with Musk’s automated or driverless cars have been blamed on others with little recognition of the shortcomings of the vehicles’ safety systems. Likewise, SpaceX’s Falcon rockets have had a number of explosions that destroyed the rocket and cargo, yet SpaceX has been opaque about its failures and cavalier about safety concerns.
While the promise of expanding high-speed broadband internet all over the globe via satellite is promising, the issue of space junk and debris is a growing safety concern. And it has life and death consequences and could become an economic disaster as well.
Space debris, satellites, and spacecraft are carefully tracked so that potential collisions can be predicted and avoided. Transparency and communication are needed because when a satellite’s trajectory is changed to avoid a collision, new collisions become possible — like on a crowded freeway, swerving to miss a pothole could create other accidents.
Similarly, if two satellites have collision avoidance systems, it is helpful if they can predictably do their avoidance jobs so that they don’t accidentally both adjust themselves into the path of the other and thus fail to avoid the collision.
Government space agencies and space sustainability experts have noted that Starlink’s planned constellation of satellites is a threat to satellite safety, including the International Space Station (ISS). And NASA says that launch safety windows become much smaller when the number of objects flying around the earth at 18,000 miles per hour dramatically increases.
A study concludes that SpaceX’s satellites have been involved in about 1,600 close or highly risky collision encounters which turns out is about 50% of all possible collisions. Imagine what happens if SpaceX increases by more than 16 times the number of satellites it has in orbit.
These collisions are a problem not merely because the two satellites would be destroyed, but because the collision would create a dense field of space junk and debris which would continue to orbit around the planet at speeds of up to 18,000 miles per hour. Even a small chunk of metal (like a nut or a bolt) can do considerable damage traveling at that high speed.
A typical 9 mm handgun shoots a relatively small bullet at about 820 miles per hour. So imagine the energy and damage that could be done by an object traveling about 20 times faster. And imagine many thousands or even millions of pieces of space debris that can be created when two satellites collide and the dramatic increased risk of future collisions that would ensue.
Given Musk’s track record of being a bit cavalier about safety concerns and passing the buck when safety issues are raised, we should be careful about blindly jumping on board with his plans.
While there is a great deal of promise in expanded satellite systems that could revolutionize communications, we must make sure we don’t make satellite technology nearly impossible to maintain because of massive space debris fields that could have been avoided with responsible and transparent safety systems.
If the U.S.’s national security satellites or our communications satellites were at risk because of some Russian oligarch’s irresponsible space launches or because of the totalitarian Chinese regime’s provocative actions in space, it seems safe to say that we would not cheer them on. So perhaps we should expect more from Elon Musk, SpaceX, and Starlink.
As NASA points out, it isn’t asking too much that the project be “conducted prudently, in a manner that supports spaceflight safety and the long-term sustainability of the space environment.” And if we would expect this of Russia and China, we should expect this of American companies as well.