There’s a lot of junk orbiting Earth. Old rocket bodies, defunct satellites, and pieces of defunct satellites, plus the military missiles that destroyed them. Many thousands of them.
Each chunk of space debris, traveling 7,500 miles per hour around Earth, is like a bullet that can damage or destroy functioning satellites, spacecraft, and even the International Space Station.
But as bad as the problem is now, it’s about to get a whole lot worse. Taking advantage of new, small electronics, more and more companies are developing “mega-constellations” of tiny, inexpensive satellites.
Some of the mega-constellations could include tens of thousands of individual spacecraft.
As those craft age out or break down, each mega-constellation could create thousands of orbital hazards on top of the thousands that already exist. “They pose a unique risk in that there are more objects,” a spokesperson for the Federal Aviation Administration told The Daily Beast.
But no one’s doing very much to stop it from happening. Despite arguably having the most to lose as tiny satellites proliferate, NASA has no say in approving U.S.-made mega-constellations. That’s the FAA’s job.
The FAA oversees launches in order to ensure no collisions happen in the first few hours. But after that, luck and optimism take over.
SpaceX, billionaire Elon Musk’s gonzo rocket start-up, underscored the space-debris problem when, in May, it launched the first batch of its Starlink communications satellites.
Each solar-powered Starlink is the size of a picnic table and weighs around 500 pounds. Zipping around Earth a few hundred miles up, the satellites bounce data between them and down to users, helping to fill gaps in the world’s wireless internet coverage.
The company scheduled in its fourth Starlink launch for Jan. 27. The California tech firm has government approval to launch a staggering 12,000 Starlink sats, around 60 at a time over the next decade. In October, SpaceX asked regulators to let it eventually launch another 30,000 of the tiny spacecraft.
To put that into perspective, as of early 2020 there were just 2,000 active satellites orbiting Earth. SpaceX alone could boost the number of sats by a factor of 20. And that’s not counting all the other companies that want to deploy their own mega-constellations, such as telcos OneWeb in London and Lynk in Virginia.
The satellites these companies are developing just happen to fall into the category of spacecraft that can produce the most debris. “The 5,000 objects above one meter in size are the largest problem,” Holger Krag, head of the European Space Agency’s Space Safety Program Office, told The Daily Beast. “If one of these objects collides at orbital velocities, this would produce several thousands of objects [greater than] one centimeter. Hence, the large objects are the source for the many small ones.”
The FAA is worried, but federal law only really allows it to issue warnings. “Corporations should work closely with NASA, the U.S. Air Force, the FAA, and other satellite stakeholders to minimize collision risk to include planning for speedy disposal of the satellites when they reach end of life,” the FAA spokesperson told The Daily Beast. “We would also recommend that each satellite have a propulsion system to actively avoid a potential collision.”
But adding a booster to each satellite in a mega-constellation doesn’t work if a company can’t stay in contact with all the sats.
SpaceX insists it will clean up after itself in space by intentionally de-orbiting old satellites as they begin to wear out after around five years of use. In an email to The Daily Beast, company spokesperson James Gleeson stressed SpaceX’s “leading-edge debris-mitigation efforts, which meet or exceed all regulatory and industrial standards.”
But the firm lost contact with three of the first 60 satellites from its first Starlink launch. They will continue to circle Earth until gravity eventually drags them down into the atmosphere to burn up. That could take years.
If only the leading companies planning mega-constellations lost control of just 15 percent of their spacecraft, they alone could more than double the amount of large space debris over a period of only a few years.
It’s worth noting the recent growth in the boutique space-cleanup industry. Several companies are developing satellites that can grab old spacecraft and hurl them into the atmosphere. These orbital garbage-collectors are problematic, however. Besides being expensive, in the wrong hands they could turn into space weaponry.
There are other steps companies could take to mitigate the risk from their thousands of tiny satellites. John Crassidis, a space-debris expert at the State University of New York, recommended adding pop-out balloons that could increase drag on an old sat and help it de-orbit more quickly.
But the sheer scale of the problem mega-constellations could create could render minor tech fixes ineffective. “Mega-constellations are unique because we’ve never had that many active satellites,” Crassidis told The Daily Beast. “This is completely new territory in the space domain.”
“My honest answer,” he added, “is to not use mega-constellations.”